Began vs. begun?

Began is the simple past tense of the verb “begin,” while begun is the perfect participle. And no, you shouldn’t use the phrase “have began.”

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What is the difference between began and begun?

Misusing the words began and begun is one of the most common mishaps in English grammar. Sure, the words look and sound similar enough, but there’s a right and wrong way to use them in a sentence. 

The words began and begun are different forms of the irregular verb “to begin.” We use the verb “begin” for actions that ‘start,’ ‘initiate’ or ‘launch’ an activity or process. For example, 

“Dinner begins with an appetizer.” (present tense)
“We began dinner with an appetizer.” (simple past tense)
“We’ve begun to eat dinner.” (present perfect tense)

As shown above, we use “began” for the past tense and “begun” as the past participle for all perfect tenses. Additional verb forms include begins (plural present) and beginning (present continuous/progressive). 

To begin” as an irregular verb…

There are several reasons why began and begun are commonly confused words, starting with the irregularities of the verb “begin.” Regular verbs consist of a simple past tense form with a present and past participle. Additionally, a regular verb’s simple past and past participle ends with -ed, such as “learned,” “passed,” or “separated.”

If “begin” were a regular verb, the past tense and past participle forms would look something like “begined”–– which is, clearly, not the case. Instead, the verb tense forms of begin look something like this:  

  • Simple past tense: began
  • Present tense: begin/begins
  • Future tense: begin
  • Progressive tense: beginning
  • Perfect tenses: begun

Beginner vs. beginning?

Another reason why it’s easy to confuse began vs. begun: similar, yet different words that start with “begin.” Do the nouns “beginner” or “beginning” ring a bell? 

In addition to acting as the progressive tense form, the word “beginning” is also a noun. As explained by The American Heritage Dictionary, the noun “beginning is ‘the time or place when something starts,’ ‘the earliest time of initiation,’ or ‘a source or cause.’ In this case, telling someone to “start at the beginning” is different from saying “something is beginning.” 

Likewise, the noun (or adjective) “beginner” describes someone or something deemed ‘entry-level,’ ‘new,’ or ‘just starting to learn something.’ For example, if you’re taking an ESL class, you might be a “beginner-English student.” Or, if you start a new exercise class, you could enroll in a “beginner’s course” to get started. 

What does begin mean?

The word begin is an irregular verb that means ‘to start,’ ‘arise,’ ‘perform,’ or ‘undergo the initial part of an action.’ Specific definitions and examples of “begin” include:

1. To initiate or ‘set about’ an activity or process. For example, 

“She began writing after work.” 
“Let’s begin with chapter 4.”
“The race begins at noon.”
“He’s in the beginning process of cleaning the garage.”
“They’ve already begun reading.” 

2. To arise or originate in existence. For example, 

“My life began in the early 90s.” 
“A new day begins whether you like it or not.” 

3. To establish or start an organization, process, or activity. For example, 

“The book club began with only three members.”
“The private school was begun by local chapter members.” 

Phrases with the verb begin:

As noted by Lexico, English speakers use the verb begin for several phrases, including: 

  • “Begin/began to do something:” to start at an initial task, time, or place. 
  • Begin with:” to start with an initial element. 
  • “Begin on/upon:” to start working or stating something. 
  • “Begin at:” a minimum cost of something or to not have any likelihood of occurring. 
  • “To begin with:” to start with something first. 

Synonyms

Actualize, appear, arise, commence, constitute, develop, embark, emerge, enter, establish, form, found, generate, inaugurate, initiate, innovate, institute, launch, materialize, open, originate, pioneer, start, surface, take-on, undertake.

Antonyms

Abolish, annihilate, annul, cease, close down, conclude, destroy, discontinue, end, expire, finish, halt, lay off, nullify, phrase out, shut up, stop, terminate, wrap up, quit.

Etymology of begin

According to The New Oxford American Dictionary, the word begin originated with Old English beginnan via early Germanic languages and is related to Dutch and German beginnen (“Begin” 150).

How to use began vs. begun in a sentence?

Now that we understand the definition and irregularities of the verb ‘to begin,’ it’s time to learn how to craft “began” and “begun” into a sentence. As a partial recap, let’s look at which verb tenses we use for all verb forms of begin

Begin:

  • Present tense: begin/begins
  • Future tense: will begin

Began:

  • Simple past tense: began

Begun:

  • Future perfect tense: will have begun
  • Present perfect tense: have/has begun
  • Past perfect tense: had begun

Beginning:

  • Present continuous tense: am/are beginning
  • Past continuous tense: was/were beginning
  • Future continuous tense: will be beginning
  • Present perfect continuous tense: have/has been beginning
  • Past perfect continuous tense: had been beginning
  • Future perfect continuous tense: have been beginning

When to use began vs. begun

As shown through prior verb lists, the only time we use “began” is for the simple past tense. For example, 

“I began reading Jane Austin novels.”
“He began every text message with an emoji.” 
“They began dancing and singing.” 

Meanwhile, the word “begun” only occurs for the past, present, and future perfect tenses. Example sentences include,

“By Friday, every resident will have begun the voting process.” (future perfect)
“The city has begun decorating for fall.” (present perfect)
“We had begun celebrating by then.” (past perfect) 

Writing tips for begun vs. began

The second lesson for using “begun” and “began” involves grammar and context:

Use “began” to reference a former title

If you’re looking to reference someone’s former or initial role, “began” is the best word choice. For example: 

  • Correct: “She began as the assistant.”
  • Incorrect: “She begun as the assistant.” 

Using “began” with inanimate subjects?

If you use “began” with an inanimate object or thing, the verb may imply that something originated or materialized into existence. For example, 

“Crater Lake began as a natural disaster.” 
“The post office began their deliveries at 5 a.m.” 
“The floor began to shake.” 

Only use “to” before “begin”

Whenever you read the word “to” before a verb, that’s because it’s written in the infinitive form (e.g., ‘to begin’). The infinitive form of a verb only contains the root word, so it’s incorrect to use other tense forms. 

  • Use: “to begin.”
  • Don’t use:to began,” “to begun,” “to beginning,” etc. 

One last note: If you choose to use the infinitive phrase, beware of using “with” afterward. According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, “to begin” is an introductory phrase that we use to enumerate a reason. Therefore, writing the phrase “to begin with” can imply a chronological order, whether it’s intended or not (Garner 102). 

To illustrate, compare the implied meaning of each example sentence: 

  • “We are going to begin with reading.” vs. “We are going to begin reading.” 
  • She’s to begin with Spanish 101.” vs. “She’s to begin Spanish 101.” 

Can you tell the difference? The examples above all convey a command, but using “with” appears more demanding because it implies a negated option. Let’s look at one more:

  • I don’t know what to begin with.” vs. “I don’t know what to begin.” 

For the final example, the appearance of “with” nearly changes the entire meaning of the sentence. The first example implies there are several options ‘to start,’ but the second example can imply that someone is confused or unaware of a task at hand. 

Avoid using auxiliary verbs with “began”

One of the trickier rules for “began” involves auxiliary verbs or ‘helping verbs.’ Most English speakers are aware of other auxiliary verbs like “to have,” “to do,” or “to be” because they allow other verbs to express their tense forms. But in the case of ‘begin,’ we don’t use auxiliary verbs for its past participle form. 

As noted by GMEU, linguists have made examples of phrases like ‘has began as “careless speech” and “writing” since 1951–– a writer’s worst nightmare, if you ask us (Garner 102). To avoid these embarrassing call-outs, avoid pairing auxiliary verbs with “began” at all costs!

Correct:

  • “He will begin.” 
  • “She has begun.” 
  • “We have begun.”
  • “I will have begun.” 

Incorrect:

  • “He will began.” 
  • “She has began.” 
  • “We have began.” 
  • “I will have began.” 

Want to learn more about verbs?

If you enjoyed learning about began vs. begun, check out our recent posts on verbs like:

Test Yourself!

Confusing words like began and begun have a bad rap for a reason. See how well you understand their differences with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: “began” and “begun” are different forms of the verb “begin.”
    a. True
    b. False
  2. The word ____________ is the past participle form of begin. 
    a. Began
    b. Begin
    c. Begun
    d. Beginning
  3. The word ____________ is the simple past tense form of begin.
    a. Began
    b. Beginning
    c. Begun
    d. Begin
  4. Forms of the irregular verb “begin” don’t include _____________.
    a. Begins
    b. Beginner
    c. Beginner
    d. Began
  5. The future tense of the verb “begin” is _____________.
    a. Beginning
    b. Began
    c. Begun
    d. Begin

Answers

  1. A
  2. C
  3. A
  4. B
  5. D

Sources

  1. “Begin.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 102.
  2. Begin.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  3. Begin.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  4. “Begin.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 150. 
  5. Beginner.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  6. Beginning.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  7. Irregular verbs: overview and list.” OWL at Purdue, Purdue University, 2020. 
  8. To begin.” Reverso Conjugation, Reverso-Softissimo, 2020.