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Start or Begin: Differences and Usage

In nearly every language, there are multiple words with similar meanings, but often those same words carry a different connotative interpretation or level of formality. Choosing the right one isn’t always easy, like when to use “start” or “begin.”

“Start” is more appropriate for referring to machines or in business. “Begin” is more formal than “start.” Apart from that, the most familiar dictionary definitions for “start” and “begin” are similar — to undergo the first part of some activity or action. While you can use these two words synonymously most of the time, that is not always the case.

If you’re talking about opening a new business, for instance, you’ll want to choose “start,” not “begin.” Please keep reading to learn more about the nuances of these words and how to use them correctly in communication.

Start versus Begin: Differences and Similarities in Meaning

Before we get too far into the connotative meanings for these words, we first need to understand the denotations for each, the straightforward dictionary definition.  

As with many words in English — and in other languages — there are often a few words that can communicate the same idea. These are synonyms because they have the same or similar meanings.  

Nonetheless, while the definitions may be the same, there are times and contexts in which you’ll need to choose one word over the other for your writing to make sense.  

What Does “Begin” Mean? 

“Begin” is an action word with a few specific meanings, though most are similar or closely related. We classify it as a verb, but the word can be both a transitive verb and an intransitive verb.  

A transitive verb requires a direct object, but an intransitive verb does not. We’ll break this down in more detail further on in this article. But first, let’s look at the definitions for each.

As a transitive verb, “begin” can mean (source):

  • To set about or undergo an activity
  • To bring into being
  • To originate or invent something

As an intransitive verb, “begin” can mean:

  • To complete or do the first part of an action
  • To come into existence or have a starting point
  • To do something in the least degree

What Does “Start” Mean? 

As you can see, the word “begin” has a few different definitions listed in the dictionary, but they are all pretty closely related. 

The word “start” is a bit different in that, while it does have multiple meanings that are related, it also has other meanings that are not at all synonymous with the word “begin.”  

Similarly too, “start” is a verb, and it can be both transitive and intransitive. Remember that if there is an object connected to “start,” it is transitive; if there is no object, it is intransitive. Most verbs require either a direct or indirect object, but both “start” and “begin” do not.  

Unlike “begin,” “start” can also be a noun, which you’ll recall is a person, place, thing, or idea. That likely sounds impossible — how can a word be both a verb and a noun?  Let’s look at the definitions for each.

As a transitive verb, “start” can mean:

  • To bring up for discussion or consideration
  • To bring into being 
  • To begin the use of something
  • To cause to move, act, or operate
  • To cause to enter a game or contest
  • To do or experience the first stage or action of something

As an intransitive verb, “start” can mean:

  • To move or react suddenly or violently
  • To issue with sudden force
  • To come into being or begin an activity or operation
  • To protrude
  • To begin a course or journey
  • To range from an initial point 

As a noun, “start” can mean:

  • An impulse or involuntary bodily movement
  • A beginning of movement or activity
  • The instance of being part of a competitive race (“starting” lineup)

That may seem like many different definitions, but you will again note that most are very similar, except “to protrude” or “an impulse,” for example. You’ll also want to note that as a noun, you’ll use the word “start” a bit differently, which we’ll break down further shortly. 

Understanding Context: Choosing Between “Start” and “Begin

We’ve covered the various meanings of both “start” and “begin” and how you can use them synonymously in many cases. Still, there are certain situations in which you’ll want to choose one word over the other.  

Remember, too, that “begin” is more formal than “start” (source). So, if you are sitting in a lecture hall, you’ll more likely hear your professor say “please begin” versus “please start.” 

When it comes to machines like printers, coffee makers, cars, or other devices, you’ll want to use the word “start,” not “begin.”  Here are some examples:

  • Please start the coffee machine when you wake up.  
  • Please start the car so that it is warm when we are ready to leave.

In both of these contexts, you would not use the word “begin.”  Similarly, if you are speaking of opening a new business or restaurant, you would not use the word begin either — you’ll want to choose “start.”  

Here’s an example:

  • My brother started his own graphic design business out of our basement.   

These slight nuances in usage will become more familiar over time and as you gain more practice.

Using Start or Begin in A Sentence

There are quite a few different ways to use both “start” and “begin” in your writing. Here, we’ll take a look at how you can use begin as both a transitive and intransitive verb. Then, we’ll examine the subtle differences in using “start” in your writing, both as a verb as well as a noun.

Examples: Using Begin as a Transitive or Intransitive Verb

As we learned earlier, “begin” in its basic form can be either transitive or intransitive. If it is transitive, there must be an object connected to the verb that receives the action (source). Here’s an example:

  • I will have to begin my lesson again because the children were not listening.  

In the sentence above, the verb “begin” is transitive — the object is the lesson. Thus, the speaker is communicating what, specifically, they will begin again.

The word “begin” is unique in that you can use it with or without a direct or indirect object, meaning that you do not need to specify who or what receives the action. Like this:

  • The teacher said, “please begin.”

Here, there is no object connected to the verb, begin. Therefore, it is intransitive. While the speaker is not explicitly stating what to begin, you can make an assumption based on the context of the situation.

Examples: Using Start as a Transitive or Intransitive Verb

Earlier, we noted that it seems there are quite a lot of definitions for the word “start,” but again, remember that many are very similar, and many are also synonymous with “begin.” 

The main difference between the two words when you can use them synonymously is that you will want to use “begin” for more formal writing and subjects and “start” in situations requiring less formality.  

Here is an example showing you how you can use “start” as a transitive verb, meaning there is an object connected to the verb, “start”:

  • I will start a fresh batch of cookies once I finish gathering the ingredients.  

Above, “start” is transitive because the object connected to it is a “fresh batch of cookies.” If you can remember that a transitive verb answers “what” or “to whom,” you’ll be able to identify whether it is transitive or intransitive quickly.

Here are a few more ways you can use “start” in your writing as a transitive verb:

  • I will start the timer when everyone is in line. 
  • The little girl started a rumor even though she knew it was untrue. 
  • “Please start the ignition when you have buckled your seatbelt,” the driving instructor said.

As an intransitive verb, remember there is no object. Here are some examples:

  • “You may start,” the teacher said.
  • The snowfall started again, even though we already had three feet in our backyard.

Neither of the above sentences has a direct object. You can determine this by asking “what?” or “to whom?” 

In the first sentence, we aren’t entirely clear what the listeners may start, but you would assume that it is likely an assignment or activity given the context. 

In the second example, there is no direct object, but we can also assume that if we asked what started, the answer would be “The falling snow.” 

Examples: Using Start as a Noun 

As a noun, you’ll use “start” a little bit differently. You’ll also likely use it not at the beginning of your sentence but rather at the end. Here are a few examples:

  • After the awful dream I had, I woke with a start.
  • The football coach declared a false start during practice.  
  • We all walked toward the start, preparing for our race. 

In each of these examples, “start” is a noun. For example, to wake with a start means that you awoke abruptly, and a close synonym may be the word “startle” or even “shock.” 

A “false start” is a phrase you’ll often hear in sporting competitions. While the definition of “start” here means the beginning of an activity, a “false start” is a noun because it is an idea that indicates a person began moving sooner than the start of a play. 

And finally, in the third example, walking toward the “start” means that the speaker is moving toward the starting line, which is also a common way to use the word.

Now that we have the definitions down, we’ll look at the various tenses in which you can use these two words and how you’ll need to change the spelling.

Understanding Differences in Tense: Start and Begin

You’ll want to remember that there’s more than one tense that you can use in your writing. We won’t get into all of the specifics here, but if you’d like to learn more about tenses, take a look at “Is ‘Than’ Past Tense.”  You’ll find a lot more detail about past, present, and future tenses. 

Nonetheless, both “start” and “begin” can change spelling depending on the tense in which you are writing. The standard spelling for both is the present tense form (start and begin). 

Understanding Past, Present, and Future Tense for “Begin”

While “begin” is a simple verb, whether transitive or intransitive, your tense when writing the word also changes depending on the context.

The present tense form for “begin” is simply “begin.” But, you can also write in what we call present continuous, which means an action is happening in that very moment. In that case, you’ll add the -ing suffix to the word “begin” to create “beginning.” Here’s a quick example:

  • I am beginning to wonder if he really wants this job.  

The -ing suffix allows your reader to understand the action of beginning is happening at that very moment. Therefore, this application is very common for the term.

Past and Future Tense: the Irregular Verb, Begin

“Begin” is not a regular verb but, rather, it is irregular. For the most part, with regular verbs, you can simply add an -ed suffix to the word to change it from present to past. We call “begin” irregular because when you change the tense of the word from the present (begin or beginning) to past, the spelling changes. 

To write “begin” in the simple past tense, you’ll change it from “begin” to “began.” So, your sentence would look like this:

  • She began walking to work to add exercise to her daily routine.

Above, “began” is simple past tense, meaning the activity’s start began in the past and may continue into the present or future.

But you can also use the word in its past participle form, meaning it is an action started and completed in the past. For example, in its past participle form, “begin” becomes “begun,” but you’ll also need to use a helping verb or linking verb. So, your sentence would look like this:

  • I had begun walking to work for exercise, but I kept arriving late.

In this example, the past participle form indicates that while the speaker did walk to work at one point, they no longer do now because they continually arrived late when walking.  

Finally, future tense for the word “begin” does not require a change in spelling but, rather, the addition of a word, “will.” The word “will” indicates that an event “will happen” at some point in the future, like this:

  • I will begin my homework after dinner.

Here’s a quick chart to remind you of the various forms and tenses of “begin.” 

Present TensePresent ContinuousPast Simple FormPast Participle FormFuture Tense
BeginBeginningBeganHelping or Linking verb + begunWill begin

Understanding Past, Present, and Future Tense for “Start”

The word “start” is a bit easier because it is a regular verb, and you will only need to change the tense when you use it as a verb. However, as a noun, you will always write and spell it the same, “start.”  

The past tense form for “start” is “started.” You simply need to add an -ed to the word, and the good news is that the spelling is the same for both past simple and past participle forms.  

Here are two examples:

  • I started writing my paper, but I still have a lot to do.
  • She started working at the ice cream shop four years ago.

If you want to communicate that something will happen in the future, you’ll simply need to add the word “will” before “start” in the same way that you would do with “begin.”

  • I will start writing my paper after I eat dinner.
  • I will start working at the ice cream shop when I turn 16.

Finally, similar to the word “begin,” you can also write “start” in present continuous with an -ing ending, like this:

  • I am starting to wonder if my dog needs more training.  

Again, the action of starting is happening at that very moment. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Here’s a quick chart to remind you of the various forms and tenses of “start.” 

Present TensePresent ContinuousPast Simple FormPast Participle FormFuture Tense
StartStartingStartedStartedWill start

Final Thoughts 

Both “start” and “begin” are very common words and ones that you’ll find you use a lot when speaking English. Just remember that, for the most part, you can use them synonymously as verbs. The main difference is that “start” can also be a noun. 

Remembering the various spellings and the correct tense to use in your writing can be tricky, but it will become second nature with time. And finally, take note of the few contexts where we would prefer “start” over “begin,” such as with machinery and businesses, or where we would prefer “begin”  over “start,” such as in formal writing and speaking. 

Soon enough, you’ll be in good shape when trying to decide which word will work better in your sentence.