Start vs. begin



What's the difference between to start and to begin?

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People, and most dictionaries, consider start and begin to be synonyms, as in the following pairs of sentences:


It’s starting to rain.


It’s beginning to rain.



When Katherine heard the news, she started to cry.


When Katherine heard the news, she began to cry.



The movie starts at 7:00.


The movie begins at 7:00.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) notes that only start, not begin, can imply setting out from a specific point, frequently following inaction, as in sentence (g) below:


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

The same source notes that begin often means to take the first step in performing or to come into being.

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?”

So, while in most instances start and begin are interchangeable, in a few cases, such as those described above, only start is possible.