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A Swede in Germany

X began Y-ing

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Disclaimer: I set out to write a text just two or three paragraphs long. I was soon met with a series of grammatical complications and aspects that I had hitherto not considered—and I raise the warning that there could be others that I still have not discovered. However, my main objection is one of style—not grammar. (No matter what impression the text could give: It only takes so long to say “it is ugly”.)

I currently spend more time than usual reading fiction. This leads me to again, and again, and again encounter one of the most ugly formulation patterns in the English language: X began Y-ing.

He began running. She started turning. It commenced raining. Etc.

Not only are they very ugly, they are also potentially misleading, because a Y-ing construct* usually has the implication of something (already) ongoing, as with “John, running, began to tire” or “John began to tire [while] running”**. This is particularly bad with “started”, because “she started turning” could be read as “she experienced a start while turning”. The much sounder construct is “to” and an infinitive—“John began to run” over “John began running”. Indeed, I often find myself suppressing a snarky question of “What did X begin to do, while Y-ing?”, even knowing what was meant. In some cases and contexts, other formulations might be suitable, e.g. “John began with running [to lose weight]” or “John began his running [for the day]”. An entirely different road is also possible, e.g. “John broke into a run”, or “John took up running” (as a smoother alternative for the weight-loser above).

*The main cases usually are participles (or, in a noun context, gerunds). I am uncertain how “Y-ing” in “X began Y-ing” should be classified, especially since it logically fills the role of an infinitive. Conceivably, it is a gerund (cf. an excursion on “stopped” below), which would give it some grammatical justification, but would not reduce its ugliness or potential ambiguity. The matter is complicated by e.g. “John began running slowly”, which would point to a participle, not a gerund. (It might be explained as intending “John slowly began running”, but that would change the meaning.) To boot, the same string of characters can sometimes be interpreted in different roles and meanings in a given sentence—and the gerund–participle division seems very vulnerable to this (but I will ignore such complications in the rest of the text).

**This example is equally ugly and not something that I would recommend (at least not without the “while”). The purpose of the examples is solely to illustrate the potential confusion.

Moreover, even a construct using “began” is often just a waste of space—a simple “John ran” will often do the trick. That he began to do so will often be clear from context, redundant, or simply not interesting in the overall situation. Consider e.g. “John walked along the path.* A bear burst out of the woods and John ran.”: The use of “began to run” (or “began running”) adds nothing but length to the text.

*This sentence makes the issue crystal clear. However, it is not always necessary, because (a) John is more likely to have walked than to have run, and (b) what he did before the encounter with the bear is usually of secondary importance to a work of fiction (but the increased precision might be beneficial in non-fiction). In a pinch, that John was already running could be brought over by “John ran faster”. In other cases, a “began to Y”/“began Y-ing” brings no value at all, as with “John jumped into the water and began to swim”—he was hardly swimming before, so “[…] and swam” is better. The variation “John jumped into the water and began to drown” / “[…] drowned” only sees a significant difference when the event/action/whatnot was not completed, here e.g. because John was rescued. Often the action is so short that its commencement will almost always imply its conclusion—using “she started to turn” over “she turned” is hardly ever justifiable.

My advice: The first attempt should use a single, ordinary verb, e.g. “John ran”. If this does not work in the overall context, go with “began to”, e.g. “John began to run”. Never use “began Y-ing”.

Excursion on “stopped” and similar words:
What about the mirror image “John stopped running”? I consider this formulation more acceptable, but also suboptimal, and would not see it as a justification for e.g. “X started* Y-ing”. This case differs in several regards: Firstly, the absence of strong alternatives. (There is no mirror image to “John ran”**, and “John stopped to run” is both uglier and more ambiguous than “John stopped running”.) Secondly, the lesser ambiguity. Thirdly, being less ugly in my eyes. Fourthly, having a greater grammatical justification, seeing that an interpretation as something ongoing is reasonably compatible (unlike with “start”): “John stopped running” could, if somewhat generously, be seen as “John, currently running, stopped doing so”. (Contrast this with a hypothetical and paradoxical “John, currently running, started doing so”…) Alternatively, an interpretation as gerund is less awkward than above, e.g. as “John stopped [the activity of] running”.***

*For better symmetry with “stop”, I will use “start” in this excursion. The main text mostly uses “began”, because I have seen “began” much more often in the last few days (and likely generally).

**“John stopped” would be a possible solution when only one activity is ongoing, and especially for activities that imply a movement in space (e.g. “running”). However, this will not work generally: For instance, “John sang while walking down the road. Feeling a sneeze coming on, he stopped.” is not unique enough: Did he stop singing, walking, or both? (Note that this ambiguity is more likely to affect the story than whether John ran, walked, or rested before meeting the bear above.)

***Then again, this might be better saved for more ongoing activities, states, whatnot. I would find this formulation less natural with someone who is at this very moment running, and more natural with someone who runs from time to time for exercise. Similarly, “John stopped smoking” would normally imply that he gave up smoking, rather than that he extinguished a cigarette. The same applies to the use of a gerund with “start” (“John started running to lose weight”—not “John started running to escape the bear”). In both cases, a reformulation using “gave up” resp. “took up”, or similar, is beneficial both to reduce ambiguity and to reduce ugliness. (Note that “John took up running” definitely implies a gerund. Also note that “John took up sports” works better than “John began sports”.)

A way out is to avoid “stopped” in favour of e.g. “ceased”: “X ceased to Y” is less problematic than “X stopped to Y”. For the moment, I suggest to either use this way or, when the context allows it, just “X stopped”—never “X stopped Y-ing”.

Constructs like “John continued running” are somewhere between the “start” and “stop” cases: On the one hand, the “ongoing” semi-justification holds similarly to “stop”; on the other, there are alternatives similarly to “start” (“John continued to run” and “John ran”, the latter actually being stronger than for “start”). These alternatives are my recommendation.

A “John continued running” might have some justification with a different intention, as with “John [who was originally walking] continued [now] running [because he saw a bear]”, but here a formulation like “John continued at a run” is usually better.

Excursion on “to … to …”:
A minor potential ugliness when using “to” is variations of “John wanted to begin to run”, where a “to” + infinitive appears repeatedly. The temptation to use “John wanted to begin running” is understandable, but I would recommend a greater restructuring. In the given example, the best solution is usually to just drop “to begin” entirely—“John wanted to run”. Alternatively, something like “John wanted to take up running” works again.

Excursion on other verbs:
My draft contained the following as a backup argument:

Of course, other non-auxiliary* double-verb constructs usually** follow the “to” pattern: “John wanted to run”, not “John wanted running”—conjugated verb, “to”, infinitive verb.

*An auxiliary verb could indeed use Y-ing as a participle, e.g. “John is running”—or use some other variation, e.g. “John must run” (an infinitive without “to”). Generally, some caution must be raised due to the different roles of verbs, which could imply different grammatical rules.

**A potential group of exceptions is those like “stop”, cf. excursion. While no other group of exceptional verbs occur to me, they might exist.

During proof-reading, exceptions like “loved running”, “disliked running”, “ran celebrating”, and my own uses of “took up running” belatedly occurred to me. These make the issue of precedence trickier, and I would rather not do the leg-work on the issue. However, limited to these cases:

“Took up running” is a strict gerund phrase, to the point that it can be disputed whether it is even a double-verb construct. (“Took up sports”, again, works much better than “began sports”, pointing strongly to a verb–noun construct. A gerund is, obviously, a quasi-noun. “Took up to run” is not even a possibility. ) Due to its character, there is also much less room for ambiguity.

“Ran celebrating” serves more to exemplify my objections against “began running” than to conquer them: Here two activities take place simultaneously (running and celebrating) that are not that closely connected. Someone is in a state of celebrating (e.g. having just won a track race) and is running while being in this state (e.g. during a lap of honor). Prior to winning, he was running without celebrating; after the honor lap, he will not be running but still be celebrating. Indeed, “he began, celebrating, to run” shows how awkward a formulation lie “he began celebrating” is. Even when the connection is strong, the modification by the one verb (a participle) is not necessarily on the other verb, but more (or wholly) on the actor in all cases that I can think of at the moment, e.g. “he slept dreaming” (broadly equivalent to “he slept and was dreaming”; and as opposed to “he slept dreamingly”, broadly equivalent to “he slept and did this dreamingly”).

As for “loved running” (ditto “disliked running”), it is usually solidly in the gerund territory and refers to more general activities than e.g. “John began running” typically does, e.g. “John loved running as a means of exercise”. In contrast, even if we allowed “John loved running from the bear” (referring to that one situation), it would make John a bit of a freak—and it could easily be replaced by “John loved to run from the bear”. Then again, I am skeptical to allowing “John loved running from the bear” in the first place: While it is not as ugly and ambiguous* as “John started running”, the gerund** issue arises and the construct brings no additional value over “John loved to run from the bear”.

*But it has some ambiguity: John might e.g. have been filled with love for his wife while running.

**Replacing “running” with “sports” gives us the non-sensical “John loved sports from the bear” speaking against a gerund, while variations like “John loved running speedily from the bear” point to a participle. Can the use be justified if it is not a gerund? Would it not be better to consistently use a “to” + infinitive?


Written by michaeleriksson

September 7, 2018 at 4:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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