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I recently asked a question on the SE website vi and vim and my question was edited to correct my grammar mistakes.

I wrote:

I started to yank the declaration of var.

And it was corrected to:

I started by yanking the declaration of var.

To remove the technical content of this sentence, I guess we can replace it by:

I started by copying the text of the file.

My question is: why should I use started by instead of started to?

According to this answer:

Begin and start can be followed by infinitives or -ing forms.

So, I guess the way I wrote the sentence is correct. But there is no information about the "started by -ing" construction so I'm wondering if there is a subtility with this form.

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There's a (potentially big) semantic difference between...

1: She started to cry
and
2: She started by crying

Pragmatically we can assume that in #1 above, there must have been something that caused her to cry, but nothing about the words as presented gives any implication that her crying was part of any "defined sequence" of events. And it certainly says nothing about whether she might do anything else after starting to cry (apart from continuing to cry, obviously! :)

But the syntax of #2 very strongly implies that there was a [planned] sequence of actions [with some expected outcome] - the first of which was to cry. Usually (but not always), when someone starts by doing something, the implication is that they're consciously aware of the intended sequence that will follow. Perhaps if she didn't get what she wanted by crying, she might switch to cajoling or insisting.


I've no idea what to yank the declaration of var means, so I can't say whether that's a credible construction or not with that particular "verb".

For example, it's quite possible to say I started by marrying the boss's daughter (as the first step in my plan to take over the company), but you can't really say I started to marry the boss's daughter in any context I can think of.

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  • @ Fumble Fingers..A wonderful answer, as always – successive suspension Oct 18 '19 at 16:30
  • "I've no idea what to yank the declaration of var means" - sounds like an action done while editing computer code; 'yank' being equivalent to 'pull', or more formally, 'remove' or 'delete'. – Michael Harvey Oct 18 '19 at 16:32
  • @MichaelHarvey: Sounds like you're as much in the dark as me (in which case arguably the best advice for OP is to forget about relatively minor syntactic issues, and concentrate on using actual vocabulary that's familiar to native speakers outside of the "geek programmer" context). But if it actually means something like "delete" (or indeed "retrieve" or similar) the question arises: Can you "start" doing an action like that? Or is it one of those actions like "marry", that aren't normally thought of as having any kind of "duration" once the act is initiated? – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 18 '19 at 16:44
  • I am not in the dark at all, Fumblefingers. I am quite sure that 'yank the declaration of var' has a clear meaning to anyone who writes computer code for a living or out of interest. I quoted your remark starting 'I've no idea... ' at the start of my comment, then proceeded to address it. – Michael Harvey Oct 18 '19 at 17:35
  • I can easily see 'yank' meaning 'pull', which is a widely used verb meaning 'delete' or 'remove'. – Michael Harvey Oct 18 '19 at 17:59
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When you say that you 'started to do something', you mean only that you commenced doing the named activity, and you are discussing nothing else. I started to shower (I went naked into the shower and turned on the water).

When you say that you 'started by doing something', you mean that the named activity was the first of a series of activities which altogether comprised a larger plan or process, which you have previously mentioned. I needed to get ready for my wedding. I started by showering (then I put on my underwear, suit, socks and shoes, and combed my hair).

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