In the Beginning or at the Beginning: Understanding the Differences and Usage

Beginnings are amazing. They mark the start of new chapters, new ideas, new relationships, and new challenges. But as you turn that metaphorical (or physical) page, should you say “at the beginning” or “in the beginning?”

“At the beginning” should be used to reference the start of a time period or to reference specific placement in time. “In the beginning” should be used to contrast the start of a situation with a later period of time. While many people often use these phrases interchangeably, they are not quite the same

That may sound rather confusing, but bear with us. Continue reading to learn how to differentiate “in” and “at” and use “in the beginning” or “at the beginning” properly.

“In the Beginning” vs. “at the Beginning”

You can tell what the beginning represents based on the word order. “At the beginning” refers to “at first,” while “in the beginning” refers to a position within the beginning of a time, place, or object.

When to Use “In the Beginning”

So when do you use “in the beginning”? Well, it depends on what “the beginning” refers to.

So as we’ve established previously, the beginning refers to a starting point. “In the beginning,” however, refers to a part of the beginning of a period of time or the beginning section of something.

Image by Sona Digital Media

“In the beginning” also shows contrasting periods or sections of time together, which is why it is largely synonymous with “at first” (source). Below are some examples.

  • The school was very small in the beginning, and then it became much larger. 
  • In the beginning, the joke was funny, but, with time, it grew stale. 
  • In the beginning, Harry was a normal boy, but soon he found out he was a wizard. 
  • Love is sweet in the beginning but sour in the end. 

When to Use “At the Beginning”

“At the beginning” has its own rules. It is often followed by “of,” and this phrase refers only to the start.

Image by Sona Digital Media

Sentences with “at the beginning” include:

  • At the beginning of the war, people fled the city in droves.
  • I left at the beginning of the party.
  • They play the national anthem at the beginning of every football match.
  • I will be paid a bonus at the beginning of December.

Practice Work

This can seem quite tricky, so below are some examples for you to practice with. The answers follow.

  1. Were you born at/in the beginning of September?
  2. Capital letters are used at/in the beginning of sentences.
  3. At/in the beginning, it was a small shop; later on, it grew into a franchise.
  4. At/in the beginning of the day, she would wash her face and brush her teeth.

After completing the task, hopefully, you’ve figured out that 1, 2, and 4 should use “at the beginning,” while with number 3, you’ll want to use “in the beginning.”

If you chose correctly, congratulations! If not, go back and look over the rules one more time — you’ll find that a bit of extra review always helps. 

This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Keep in mind that some of these rules are not widely known. Chances are you will encounter sentences that do not follow the rules exactly, but that shouldn’t stop you from using them correctly in your own writing.

The + Beginning

These two phrases — a group of words that cannot stand alone like a sentence or clause — have one thing in common: “the beginning” (source). Each word has its own significance.

The word “the” is a determiner (source). Specifically, “the” is a definite article, which means it refers to a specific noun and, in this case, a specific “beginning” (source). The word “beginning” is a noun, and a noun is a word that refers to a person, place, or thing.

“Beginning” literally refers to the start of something or a part of the start, or even a point in time or space. The beginning can also represent an abstract concept or a straightforward one.

In the Beginning

For those familiar with the Bible, chances are this topic reminded you of the opening words of Genesis, where it says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Here, it doesn’t say “In the beginning of.” Therefore, the concept of “beginning” is quite general, and it refers to the start of an unknown — at least without analysis — concept.

However, you can conclude that here “the beginning” refers to the beginning of time, the beginning of all creation, or even just an undefined starting point.

You’ll find a similar concept in the sentences below:

  • I found myself beginning to disagree with her.
  • She was beginning to feel tired.

In these two examples, the beginning refers to the start of something. You can even replace the word “beginning” with “starting,” and nothing will change when it comes to the meaning of the sentence.

At the Beginning Of

Going back to the Genesis example, the position of that verse is at the beginning of the Bible/Genesis. This usage is in contrast to the phrase itself, “In the beginning,” which refers to time. Instead, “at the beginning” refers to a place.

Unlike the abstract starting points we previously discussed, the word “of” tells us what the beginning refers to, which is something you will regularly encounter in reading and writing English:

  • I wrote “dear diary” at the beginning of all my journal entries.
  • The beginning of the novel was far too boring for her to get through.
  • The beginning of spring often triggered his hay fever.

If you want to dive more deeply into definitions, look for The Oxford New Essential Dictionary on Amazon. It’s an affordable book with over 100,000 entries, definitions, and various illustrations that make expanding your vocabulary much more interesting.

Image by Mona Eendra via Unsplash

Prepositions

If you’ve read or written English, chances are you’re well-acquainted with prepositions —  most sentences have at least one.

Prepositions are single words or a collection of words you use before nouns, pronouns, and noun phrases. These words indicate time, position, location, and direction. You can also use prepositions to introduce an object.

The article “Is It “What Are You Up To” or “What Are You Up Too”?” takes a deeper look into prepositions, so if you’re interested, give it a quick read.

Common examples of prepositions are:

inat
tofrom
foroutside
aboveacross
intowithout

You should understand the prepositions “in” and “at” in order to correctly differentiate between “in the beginning” and “at the beginning.”

The Preposition In

The preposition “in” is one of the most common in the English language, and we can use it in an abundance of ways.

Inclusion, Position, or Location within Limits

The word “in” can first refer to being encased or inside something physical, such as a container, place, or area. You can also use “in” to refer to wearing clothing items:

  • “Get in the car!” she yelled.
  • I was born in New Jersey.
  • The book was in the old trunk.
  • The girl in the blue dress looked stunning.
  • They refer to soldiers as “men in uniform.”
  • Many say people look most flattering in red or black.

The word “in” can also refer to being a part of something, such as a field, organization, or any broader category:

  • She used to work in education, but now she works in medicine.
  • Pop is the best genre in music.
  • There was an astonishing lack of paragraphs in his three-page essay.

The word “in” can precede a period of time (or a part of it). Often, when you use the word “in” like this, the word “during” can stand in place of “in”:

  • The leaves turn orange in autumn.
  • He was born in March.
  • She was a famous actress in the 20th century.
  • I read the book in two weeks.

Circumstance

The word “in” can also precede an experience or feeling:

  • He watched his toddler’s movements in awe.
  • I was in love with his green eyes.
  • You’re in a bad mood.

You can use “in” to refer to the organization of people or things or how they broke up:

  • The mug shattered in two.
  • The ducks were all lined up in a row.

Medium or Means

You can use “in” to refer to how you express something:

  • She wrote in an untidy script.
  • The words sounded posh in his British accent.
  • She did her artwork in gel paints.
  • Her internal monologue was in French.

Indicating Purpose

“In” can separate actions and consequences/responses:

  • The mother yelled in response to her child’s prank
  • I didn’t say anything in reply to her criticism. 

Cause and Effect

“In” has a special purpose when attached to -ing and a verb. In that case, you’ll use it to contrast how one thing is the cause of another thing:

  • I blocked her and, in doing so, I ended our friendship. 
  • In stepping up, I had allowed my mother to take a break.

Within or During

You can see that “in” is synonymous with “within” or “during” much of the time. This relationship is relevant if you recall what “the beginning” is.

The beginning is a noun that can refer to each of the following:

  1. A part of a start
  2. The start
  3. A period of time

So, “in the beginning” refers to a time or position during “the beginning” of whatever you are speaking about.

The second preposition you should acquaint yourself with is “at.”

The Preposition At

“At” also has multiple purposes, making it a useful preposition while reading or writing.

You can  use “at” to show position/location:

  • She was at the party.
  • When writing in the active voice, the subject is at the beginning of the sentence.
  • The dog cuddled up at the foot of my bed.

The word “at” can also be followed by a time:

  • At midnight, Cinderella’s dress turned to rags.
  • The meeting is at 10:00 p.m., don’t forget.
  • At the age of 35, I met the woman I now call my best friend. 

“At” can also play a role in discussing direction, which means the word after references the direction of or what the subject is interacting with:

  • “Look at the camera!” the photographer yelled.
  • The teacher shouted at the children.
  • I aimed the dart at the center of the dartboard.

You can also use “at” to show the cause of something:

  • He giggled at her words.
  • My family was delighted at the news.

“At” can stand in front of an activity:

  • She was exquisite at ice skating.
  • You’re even better at swimming than I am.

“At” can come before a number. This number can indicate a price or units of measurement:

  • At 60 dollars, I felt the shirt was far too expensive.
  • The water was too hot at 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

“At” can also precede a state, condition, or activity:

  • I felt at peace when I finally collapsed onto the couch.
  • He was already hard at work by 6 a.m. 

At vs. In

From the above examples, you can see that “at” does not position the concept in the same way that “in” does. Instead, it refers to a more general position at the top, bottom, end of something, or near something physical. 

It can also indicate a direction, location, activity, or a particular point on a scale/unit of measurement.

When keeping “at the beginning” in view, you’ll begin to see that the meaning is essentially “at the start” (source).

Image by Brett Jordan via Unsplash

Final Thoughts

Whether “in the beginning” or “at the beginning,” English gives you various ways to express yourself, both literally and figuratively. 

“At the beginning” and “in the beginning” are particularly confusing, but you’ll find that when you break the phrases down, you’ll be able to understand them easily enough.

Just remember that we use “at the beginning” to reference the start of a time period or to specific placement, while “in the beginning” refers to a point within the beginning, and we typically use it to contrast the start of a situation or time with a later period or situation.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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