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ESL Article: Start or begin?

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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:

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«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». And that's probably where I'll have to finish or should I say «end»? Now there's yet another irritating pair that I'll have to go into another time…

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Author: Alan Townend


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