START versus BEGIN (Part I)
This is Part I of two parts. The verb “start” will be addressed in Part I of this article. Complete information about the verb “begin” will be included in Part II.
Many of my students have asked me if there really is a difference between the words “start” and “begin”. To give you a quick answer, I would say “yes”, but this answer needs more of an explanation. Even though these two words are considered to be synonyms of each other, there is room for discussion about using them interchangeably in any context. For example, consider the following three questions: (1) Where should we start, or where should we begin? (2) Do we begin at the start, or start at the beginning? and (3) Do you think it’s better to start at the start, begin at the beginning, start at the beginning, or begin at the start?
Maybe your choice for number (1) is not so clear, but if you use your instinct and remember what you have heard before, you probably do have a clear choice for numbers (2) and (3); namely, “start at the beginning”. It’s obvious that the words “start” and “begin” are yet another example of troublesome word pairs in the English language. Here’s another example to consider. Which of the following two statements do you think is correct: “I have started to learn how to play the piano”, or “I have begun to learn how to play the piano”. The fact is that they are both correct, but there is a difference in the character or nature of these two words. The meanings in these two examples are not exactly the same. Let’s find out why.
Both of the verbs “start” and “begin” refer to commencing or introduction of some kind of action. However, “start” generally implies that there is a necessity or urgency to do something, whereas “begin” suggests an unhurried or relaxed act. In other words, “time” is important when you “start” some action, but not so important when you “begin” it. If you need to do something where time is critical, then you need to “start” some action. In contrast, if you are relaxed, and not in a hurry, then time isn’t important in order to “begin” something.
Let’s examine the verb “start” in Part I of this article. If you want to identify an action that is done suddenly or unexpectedly, then use the verb “start”. Time is of the essence here, and implies that the action has a sense of urgency behind it. Read the following examples, and practice answering the questions out loud, in order to have a better understanding of the usage of the verb “start”.
Example: Since it started to snow, we decided to end our visit earlier.
Explanation: The snow suddenly appeared, and we didn’t really expect it to do so during our visit. There is a sense of urgency for us to leave earlier than we had planned. Time is of the essence so that we don’t get stuck in a bad situation with the falling snow.
Practice: Has it ever started to snow on you when you were away from home?
Example: My stomach usually starts to growl just before lunchtime every day at work.
Explanation: My stomach usually tells me at the same critical time every day at work that I’m hungry. When I suddenly realize this, I feel the urge to eat something very soon. I know that lunchtime is coming up, and that it’s necessary for me to have something to eat at my precise lunchtime hour in order to alleviate my hunger pains.
Practice: Does your stomach usually start to growl before any of your meals during the day?
Example: My favorite TV show starts at 9 o´clock every Thursday night.
Explanation: If I suddenly realize that today is the day to watch my favorite TV show, then the timing is important for me to remember so that I don’t miss it. I feel a sense of urgency in order to pay attention to the clock this evening. I might unexpectedly forget to watch my favorite show, if I don’t look at the clock in the evening in order to know when it starts.
Practice: What time does your favorite TV show start at?
Example: The neighbor’s dog always starts barking whenever its owner leaves to work in the morning.
Explanation: The neighbor’s dog suddenly reacts by barking when its owner unexpectedly leaves the house. The timing of this event is crucial to the pet since it depends totally on its master. The dog has an urgent feeling to reunite with its master as soon as possible after he leaves.
Practice: Why do dogs usually start to bark when their owners leave the house?
Example: The house fire started because children were playing with matches.
Explanation: The children’s sudden urge to play with matches caused an accident to happen. Timing was critical in order to put the fire out, but it was too late. The children didn’t expect to start a fire in the house. It just happened.
Practice: How do think that fires usually start in houses?
The verb “start” also has another possible usage. This verb can imply that an action commences at an exact, or precise time. It also conveys the sense that an action originated in the past at a particular point in time, and that it will likely repeat itself again in the present and/or future. For example, “I start work at 9 a.m.” This means that on any particular work day, I am required to arrive at a precise time in the morning, which in this case is 9 a.m. Furthermore, this is the same time that I will arrive to work on any given day from now on, so long as I’m employed at the same place and in the same job. Read the following examples, and practice using this other meaning of the verb “start” in the questions below.
Example: My boss started this morning’s meeting at 10:00 a.m. (an exact time)
Practice: What time do your morning work meetings usually start at?
Example: My sister started to swim when she was just 2 years old. (a particular point in time)
Practice: When did you first start to learn how to ride a bike?
Example: My son started to walk when he was twelve months old. (likely repetition of an action)
Practice: When did your children first start to walk?
In summary, the verb “start” is used to communicate the commencement of an action that is necessary, urgent, timely, sudden, or unexpected. Time is relevant in this case. This concludes the explanation of the usage of the verb “start”, as discussed here in Part I of this article. Part II of this article will explain the usage of the verb “begin”, and identify its difference with the verb “start”. Practice exercises will be included in the second part of this article, so that you can test your understanding of the difference between the two verbs "start" and "begin".
GO TO (Part II) HERE