Word Choice: Began vs. Begun
  • 3-minute read
  • 5th June 2016

Word Choice: Began vs. Begun

Does the English language really need both “began” and “begun”? Wouldn’t it be simpler to just have one past tense version of “begin”? Of course it would, but nobody said English grammar would be easy (in fact, many have said the opposite).

So what exactly is the difference between “began” and “begun”? And why should you try to avoid confusing them in your work?

Began (Simple Past Tense)

The verb “begin” means “start.” But whether to use “began” or “begun” for something that has already started depends on how you phrase the sentence.

“Began” is the simple past tense of “begin” and used when describing an action or process that started in the past, but that has now finished:

The Second Boer War began in 1899 and ended in 1902.

You can also use “began” for an ongoing action or event:

The day began well and has gotten better since!

But it’s worth remembering that “began” is most often used for past events that have come to an end, since “begun” has a slightly different use.

Begun (Past Participle)

“Begun” is a past participle, used in the perfect tenses. These tenses help us refer to completed actions, combining a past particple with some form of “have,” “has,” or “had” as a helper verb. For example, the present perfect tense allows us to talk about something which began in the past but continues into the present:

Present Perfect Tense: I have begun writing my book.

The past perfect allows us to refer to something that began in relation to another past action or a specified point in the past. For instance:

Past Perfect Tense: I had begun writing my book by the time you met me.

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And the future perfect lets us refer to something that will have started by a certain point in the future. For example:

Future Perfect Tense: I will have begun writing my book by then.

The key point to remember, then, is that if this word is preceded by some variation of “have,” the correct term to use will be “begun.

Summary: Began or Begun?

There are two things to consider when using “began” or “begun.”

The first is whether your sentence contains a helper verb (usually a variation of “have”), since this will usually mean you need “begun.”

The second is whether what you are describing has already ended. If so, you will usually need to use “began.” Remember:

Began = Simple past tense

Begun = Past participle

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Comments (11)
Allan
16th October 2020 at 06:24
Thank you. How would the negated context be? Let's say something like `had not begun`. Using begun and began in negative context.
    Proofed
    16th October 2020 at 09:55
    Hi, Allan. As in the present tense, you would use "begun" where the sentence calls for a past participle (e.g., "It had not begun by sundown" or "I have not begun my homework"). And in the simple past, you would usually combine "did not" with the base verb (e.g., "It did not begin when I expected").
Liane
16th November 2020 at 11:39
Thank you. But can we use the passive voice of begin? Eg. The project was begun in May. The innovation was begun in Mexico.
    Proofed
    16th November 2020 at 12:10
    Hi, Liane. In theory, yes, were you to use the passive voice form be verb + past participle, you would say "was begun." However, "begun" may sound a bit awkward in the passive voice, so it may be better to use active forms instead (e.g. "The project began in May" will sound more natural to most English speakers).
Cheryl
30th January 2021 at 13:06
Began or begun My mind had actually began or begun to guide me to the clubhouse.
    Proofed
    1st February 2021 at 09:49
    Hi, Cheryl. The "actually" between "had" and "begun" in your example sentence doesn't make a difference, so it still follows the rule we explain in the post (i.e., you will need "begun" when it is preceded by "had" or a variation thereof).
Hazel
26th May 2021 at 13:26
Hey, I am so confused about the sentence "it's just begun". This sentence is one of the the song lyrics in Only the young (written by Taylor Swift), it's also a song, which written by Jimmy Coaster Bunch. Why they use the word begun? Are there any grammatical mistakes?
    Proofed
    26th May 2021 at 16:54
    Hi, Hazel. "It's" is short for "it has" in that context, so "it's just begun" is fine because it combines a helper verb with the past participle (i.e., "It has just begun"). The time adverbial "just" simply indicates that those songs are referring to the recent past.
Zee
13th June 2021 at 07:25
Hello, thanks for the insightful post! I would like to ask how do you know when to use "had" or "have" or "has" in front of begun? For example, why couldn't it have been "the lecture has just begun"? Thank you :)
    Proofed
    14th June 2021 at 10:11
    Hi, Zee. In the present perfect tenses, it can depend on the point of view (e.g., "I have begun my work" compared to "He has begun his work") and whether the subject is singular or plural (e.g., "She has begun her work" compared to "They have begun their work"). And "had" is used in the past perfect tense (e.g., "I had begun my work," "He had begun his work," "They had begun their work"). There are a couple of factors at play here, then, but they follow the usual English rules for "have" verbs.
Ndumtrasey
21st June 2022 at 11:57
Thanks, it really helped me

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