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What's the right way of asking the following question:

How did World War II start?
How did World War II get started?

Do both convey the same meaning, or is the use of 'get' superfluous?

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2 Answers 2

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Both questions are grammatically correct, but they have small differences in meaning.

In general, get + past participle is a way of expressing the passive voice. It is nearly identical in meaning to be + past participle.

Thus, "How did World War II get started?" has the same meaning as "How was World War II started?" This question asks about what forces or events caused World War II to begin.

"How did World War II start?" is similar in meaning, but the answers to this question could center around the events that occurred at the beginning of the war, as well as the events leading up to it. Either answer would probably be acceptable without further context.

As a side note, both of these questions are very, very broad, and the listener is likely to ask a follow-up question to narrow down the topic. A more focused question might be, "What were the major events that led to the start of World War II?"

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Both sentences are grammatically correct and acceptable.

To get (something) started means to become active, to begin, to commence
It is perhaps a little less formal than the first sentence so, if you were writing an exam paper or an essay I would recommend using the first,

How did World War II start?

If we look at the results of the Ngram Google viewer we can observe a marked shift in tendency a few years before 1930 and the gap has been widening ever since.

How did it start vs. How did it get started

As further evidence that both question forms are acceptable here is an excerpt from a US foreign relations 1969 book

W.W.ll got started

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    @Sweet72's answer & its comments appear to have been deleted. Just to point out that the previously linked question What is the difference between “begin” and “start”? appears to confirm that start is the better choice of word because, as two of the answers there point out, start can imply causation whereas begin does not have than implication. The question above asks "How did [it] start?", i.e. what was the cause of it starting.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Sep 7, 2013 at 16:10

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