began or begun

Began or Begun: Your One-stop Guide to These Tricky English Words

Reading the correct train times when heading to a job interview.

Double-checking that box of hair dye to make sure it won’t turn your hair green.

Understanding the small differences between words like began and begun

These are the types of things that require (need) a lot of attention to detail!

While we can’t help you with train schedules or hair products, we can help you with began and begun!

These two verb forms come from the English infinitive “to begin.” If you look closely, there’s only one letter difference and yet they’re used in very different ways.

So, are you ready for me to introduce them? Let’s get started!
 


 

Began or Begun: Your One-stop Guide to These Tricky English Words

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Where Do “Began” and “Begun” Come From?

As noted in the introduction, “began” and “begun” are different forms of the verb “to begin.” This is an irregular verb that has several functions in English. Most commonly, it describes an action that starts to happen, as in the following sentence:

He begins to read.

One of the best ways to deal with irregular verbs like this is to spend a lot of time with them. Try writing out the conjugations, and do a lot of reading and listening. Over time, using irregular verbs correctly will become natural to you, and you’ll be able to use them with confidence when speaking and writing.

Remember that it’s not a big problem if you make a mistake. As with “began” and “begun,” your meaning will most likely be understood even if your grammar is not 100% correct.

began or begun

But, if you really want to master these words, it’s a good idea to see them being used by native speakers in authentic contexts. You can easily do this by using a resource like FluentU, which takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

You can use the video search function to look up words like “began” or “begun” and get a list of videos that use them. If you’re already watching a video and see one of these words being used, you can click on it using the interactive captions to find out more about it and see it used in example sentences and other videos.

began or begun

For example, you can see “began” used in this video on FluentU (you’ll need to sign up for a free trial to access the interactive subtitles):

If you want to keep practicing tricky English words, add them to FluentU’s customized vocab lists and flashcard sets to review them. You can also test how well you’ve learned them with interactive quizzes. Sign up for a free trial to see some videos with “began,” “begun” and other English words!

Began: The Introvert Who Likes to Be Alone

I’d like to introduce you to “began.”

Don’t worry if he doesn’t say hello back (he’s kind of shy and doesn’t like to be around others). So, whenever we use “began” in English, we always have to remember to use it on its own.

Now, it’s time for the grammatical explanation. “Began” is the simple past tense of the verb “to begin.” This tense is used for an action (of any duration) that has finished in the past. Let’s take a look at some examples:

It began to rain.

She began to sing.

I began to cry when I saw the disgusting lunch menu.

You began to run because you were afraid of the dog. 

As you can see in the last two examples, “began” can be used before a conjunction (like the word “when”) to introduce another clause (e.g. I saw the disgusting lunch menu). It never changes form.

So, whether you’re starting your sentence with I, you, he, she, we or they, “began” stays the same. Phew!

The most important thing to notice is how “began” is always used by itself without a “friend,” which in grammatical terms is called an auxiliary verb. This is going to be more important in the next section, so for now let’s say goodbye to “began” and hello to “begun.”

Begun: The Extrovert Who Always Needs a Friend

So, if “began” was the shy one, “begun” is the twin who can be described as a party animal (someone who loves to party). He can never be on his own and always needs a friend (an auxiliary verb) hanging around. If you can remember this difference, you’ll make the right choice about which word to use.

The most common auxiliary verb forms come from the English verb “to have.” (For example: had, has, have and will have.)

Unlike the simple past we encountered earlier, “begun” is a past participle that’s used with the three perfect tenses: past perfect, present perfect and future perfect. They also describe a completed action but are more complex, suggesting how a previous action affects a current condition. For example:

I had begun to style my hair for the party when I realized there was a storm outside.

To construct these sentences, we need to start with the auxiliary verb, adding “begun” afterward:

They had begun to play soccer before I got there. 

He has begun to smoke again. 

We have begun cooking the meal that we’re going to eat tonight. 

I will have begun my speech by the time you arrive. 

Remember that in speech and informal writing, the personal pronoun and the auxiliary verb usually contract and use an apostrophe, e.g. they’d begun. This isn’t to punish language learners but to make things easier to express when using natural English!

Another Way to Express “Began” or “Begun”

Of course, there are alternatives to the verb “to begin.”

One that I’ve been using throughout this article is the verb “to start.” This verb is slightly more informal, and you can use it when speaking and writing in most situations. Be careful when using this in formal writing though, as “to begin” is often the better choice.

I have great news: “To start” is a regular English verb! This means that while there might be some confusion choosing either “began” or “begun,” we should have fewer problems when dealing with the tenses of “to start.”

Let’s look at “to start” in the simple past:

I started my homework last night.

They started laughing when they saw the clown. 

We started a new yoga class.

You started learning Arabic. 

Now, here is “to start” as a past participle with the perfect tenses (note that we have to use the auxiliary verb once again):

She had started reading an old novel. 

It has started to snow. 

We have started a new project at work. 

He will have started his journey by now. 

See how in both cases, “start” becomes “started?” This makes it a super easy alternative to the verb “to begin!”

Idiomatic Expressions with the Verb “To Begin”

1. To begin (by) doing something

The first idiomatic expression we’re going to look at is to begin (by) doing something, which means to start something by taking a specific action.

Let’s take an example using the infinitive form of “to begin.”

I begin by showing you how to use an English expression.

In the simple past (using “began”), it looks like this:

I began by adding the eggs to the flour.

And, using a perfect tense (auxiliary verb+ begun), it would be:

He had begun by stretching before going out for a run.

2. To begin to see the light

The second expression is to begin to see the light. This is a useful expression in English when you want to express how a situation is clear to you in the present but wasn’t clear to you in the past.

For example:

She begins to see the light about how horrible her boss is.

In the simple past (using began):

You began to see the light when it came to your boyfriend.

And using a perfect tense (auxiliary verb+ begun):

He will have begun to see the light by the time he realizes we’ve stolen his credit card.

3. Life begins at (age)

The final expression we’re going to look at is life begins at (age).

This is an expression you’ll hear in relation to the aging process. It means that just because someone reaches a particular age (traditionally 40), it doesn’t mean they can’t restart their life and take pleasure in it.

For example:

Life begins at 40.

In the simple past (using began):

Life began at 70 for Sarah. 

And in a perfect tense (auxiliary verb+ begun):

Life has begun at age 50 for Mark. 

 

I hope after this article, you have a clearer sense of the troublesome twins “began” and “begun” and that you can check this grammar point off your list. Proficiency comes with time, so remember to keep practicing your irregular verbs through writing, speaking, reading and listening to natives through real-world videos.


Sophie McDonald is a freelance writer with a burning passion for writing and languages. You can find her Twitter page here where she’ll most likely be talking about writing and languages.
 

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