What is more correct here?

My telephone suddenly began to ring.


My telephone suddenly started ringing.

What's the difference?

  • There's no significant difference between these two stylistic choices - or indeed, the other two ("began ringing", and "started to ring"). Commented May 10, 2012 at 2:11
  • 2
    As per @FrozenFyr, it would be 'start', not 'begin', since you say 'suddenly'.
    – Kris
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 6:40
  • I can't tell if this question is about the difference between start and begin, or about whether or not to include the preposition to when the telephone starts to ring, or the doorbell starts ringing.
    – J.R.
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 10:06
  • 1
    @J.R. - When I was asking this question, I didn't know that it was permissible to say "began V-ing" or "started to INFINITIVE", so my question is simply about "began to INF" and "started V-ing", precisely, which one of them is correct in the mentioned context.
    – brilliant
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 12:16
  • The to in the sentence is not actually a preposition. It is rather part of the infinitive to ring. Commented May 10, 2012 at 12:18

4 Answers 4


Here is an article from: http://www.english-test.net/articles/24/index.html (Author: Alex Townend). He explains the difference between "start" and "begin".

Where shall we start? Where shall we begin? Shall we begin at the start, start at the beginning, start at the start or even begin at the beginning? That last one was good enough for the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas in his famous play for voices, Under Milk Wood first broadcast in February 1954 a few weeks after the poet's death. The actor Richard Burton intoned the lines: «To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black…» The two verbs «start» and «begin» are like so many couples in the English language a really troublesome pair because of the problem of choosing the right one for the appropriate use and occasion. Take these two sentences for example:

«I've started to learn English and I've begun to learn English». Which one would you choose? Well, I have a theory about these verbs which I want to try out in order to test its validity. The difference really lies in the nature of the two words. «Begin» has a sense of leisure and «start» has the idea of urgency. They both obviously indicate the idea of commencing — don't ask me to explain that word's relationship with the pair, suffice it to say that it covers both meanings — but there is a difference in interpretation. «Start» gives the idea of suddenness. In fact if you were sitting in a room and say half asleep and you were unaware that there was anybody else there, you would say if you unexpectedly heard or saw them:

«Oh, you did give me a start» or as an extension of the verb: «You startled me». Then again you could say: «My car starts straightaway in the morning». If you said: «My car begins in the morning», people would wonder what it was going to do next. As a further use you could look at the English translation of the Bible and go to the New Testament John 1:1, to read:

«In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God». It would be ludicrous here to use the word «start». If you want to get on with a meeting because nobody is paying attention, you might say:

«Shall we start?» And thus indicate that there is a lot to do and time is important. «Shall we begin?» is much more relaxed. There is a sort of uniqueness in idea behind the verb «start» as if it hasn't happened before, take these two sentences for example:

«Charlie (baby) started speaking at the age of two and Charlie (chairman) began speaking at two o'clock». Back to my original question concerning the learning of English. «I've started to learn English» suggests possibly «I have to for my job» or «I've thought about it for a long time and now decided the time is right». Whereas «I've begun to learn English» gives the idea that you've taken up this as a hobby and it might be of interest to other people.

If you had to give the two verbs a personality, you might well describe start as «impetuous, decisive and efficient». Begin can perhaps be described as «relaxed, unhurried and good-natured».

  • 1
    +1 Very convincing theory. Have you published this in a peer reviewed journal? You should, I'm sure.
    – Kris
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 6:35
  • 2
    However, you forgot to answer the Q. Or left it as implied/ too obvious.
    – Kris
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 6:37
  • @Kris: I was writing another answer (see below), where i could quote a few references and the exact situations where only 'start' is possible. Cheers!! I don't know how to publish in a "peer reviewed journal", can you help?
    – Fr0zenFyr
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 6:52
  • 1
    I agree with Kris. I think your theory is very convincing. Thank you.
    – brilliant
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 7:18
  • 1
    It sounds like a good theory but I'm not sure I believe it. They've begun the countdown for liftoff. The baby began to cry. The leaves have started to turn. These usages sound natural to me yet, the sense of urgency/leisure is opposite that of the theory.
    – Jim
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 8:09

In general the verbs start and begin are synonyms. Note that you can use a gerund or an infinitive after both verbs, so the following two sentences are also valid:

My telephone suddenly began ringing.

My telephone suddenly started to ring.

  • So that means it is correct to say "I begin/began a car." or "I begin/began the machine." or "I begin/began my computer." I don't think so. There is a difference between the words(else, no reason for having two separate words), they are synonyms but they can't be used interchangeably in every case, though it is alright in the given example.
    – Fr0zenFyr
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 6:08
  • @brilliant: As advised to me by another contributor, it's always a better practice to wait for at least a day or two before you mark your question as "answered". You may get better answers. Consider voting the answers you get till then.
    – Fr0zenFyr
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 7:10
  • @Fr0zenFyr Read the question and answer very carefully. The question is: "What is more correct here?" My answer states "In general they are synonyms." Commented May 10, 2012 at 12:12

According to most people (and dictionaries), 'start' and 'begin' are synonyms and are interchangeable, as in the case of your example. Since nobody mentioned this, I thought there is a need to cite a few cases where they stand different.

However, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, only start, not begin, can imply setting out from a specific point, frequently following inaction. It also notes that begin often means to take the first step in performing or to come into being.

Stand here and visit with me for a few minutes until the train starts.

Michael Swan (Practical English Usage, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1995) lists these instances in which start, but NOT begin, is used:

  1. start a journey: I think we ought to start at six, while the roads are empty.

  2. start working (for machines): The car won’t start.

  3. make (machines) start: How do you start the washing machine?”

It may be concluded from cases described above that, while start and begin can be interchanged in most cases like your example, only start is possible here.

Reference: Pearson Education


In situations like this I tend to go for a more proper tense. It seems as though this sentence is past tense so I would use this variation:

My telephone suddenly rang.

The extra words began or started are unnecessary and if you use ringing that indicates to me present tense whereas began and started are both past tense.

  • 1
    The ringing in My telephone started ringing has nothing to do with tense and does not suggest that the action is happening at present. It is a gerund and is functionally a noun, not a verb. Commented May 10, 2012 at 3:49
  • It has to do with the tense in that my example uses past simple which is the most common form when referring to an action that was completed in the past. The OP is using past continuous which emphasizes the continuity of the action. Not that his method is incorrect grammatically it's merely a style choice and also depends on what he is trying to imply. Personally I just prefer more concise writing.
    – afrederick
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 12:16
  • Past continuous is something like The phone was ringing. There is nothing wrong with using a gerund as the object (or subject) of a verb which is in a past (or future) tense. For example, you can't say that I enjoyed meeting you yesterday is wrong in any way. Commented May 10, 2012 at 12:26

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