I would like to know if "start" and "begin" are always interchangeable in sentences similar to the one below? I know that "begins" is more formal, but other than that is there examples where one of them would sound awkward to use? I know you can't list examples, but I just want to know if it's something I should be aware of when writing.

Suddenly the tree starts/begins to move violently from side to side.

Are "start" and "begin" both completely natural here?


Short answer

Both start and begin are natural in the context of the example sentence in the question.

Long answer

Unless I am mistaken, they can always be freely exchanged when they are used as auxiliary verbs:

  • ✔ The tree starts to move.

  • ✔ The tree starts moving.

  • ✔ The tree begins to move.

  • ✔ The tree begins moving.

  • ✔ Start writing.

  • ✔ Begin writing.

Or when used after an auxiliary verb without a noun:

  • ✔ I will start now.
  • ✔ I will begin now.

However, they cannot always be freely exchanged when they are the only verb or they are followed by a particular noun:

  • ✔ Start your engines.

  • ✘ Begin your engines.

  • ✔ I will start the engine now.

  • ✘ I will begin the engine now.

  • ✔ Start your quest.

  • ✔ Begin your quest.

The fact that begin doesn't work in the first two examples but does in the third, indicates that you can't determine what's acceptable from the grammar alone. Instead, context is extremely important.

They cannot be freely exchanged (without altering their spelling), when they are used as nouns:

  • ✔ It is a good start.

  • ✘ It is a good begin.

  • ✘ It is a good starting.

  • ✔ It is a good beginning.

However, their use as adjectives can alter this:

  • ✔ It is a starting point.

  • ? It is a beginning point. [This at least sounds odd to me.]

  • ✔ They are starting writers.

  • ✔ They are beginning writers.

While some conventions (if not actual rules) can be determined in general, some other uses are very much based on the context of the particular words in the rest of the sentence, as well as the overall construction.

In presenting these examples, it at least appears as if start and its variations can be used in more contexts than begin and its variations. However, there are still some sentences where begin is fine, but start is not.

  • In "start your engines", "start" is the antonym of "stop", whereas in "start work", "start" is the opposite of "finish". "Begin", meanwhile, is the opposite of "end". So we have three pairings: start/stop, start/finish, and begin/end. – rjpond Aug 25 '20 at 18:12
  • @rjpond Exactly so. That's also why context, and the conjunction of particular words, is so important—even despite identical constructions of grammar. – Jason Bassford Aug 25 '20 at 18:14

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