Word Choice: Began vs. Begun

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They are similar in spelling, but what exactly is the difference between the words ‘began’ and ‘begun’? Both stem from the verb ‘begin’, but they have specific uses. Read on to learn more about how they should be used.

Began

The word ‘began’ is the simple past tense of ‘begin’, which means ‘start’. ‘Began’ is therefore used to describe things which happened in the past:

I began to run just as the bus pulled away.

However, ‘began’ is never used with auxiliary verbs (i.e. verbs, such as ‘has’ or ‘would have’, that add additional information to another verb in a sentence).

Begun

The word ‘begun’ is the past participle of ‘begin’. ‘Begun’ is used in the perfect tense sentences. It is, therefore, incorrect to write ‘I begun’, as ‘begun’ can never be used without an auxiliary verb (‘has’, ‘have’ or ‘had’). Thus, we must say that something ‘has begun’ or ‘had begun’.

The auxiliary verb used with ‘begun’ affects the tense of the sentence. When combined with ‘has’ or ‘have’, it is part of the present perfect tense. Typically, this shows that something started in the past and continues in the present:

I have begun writing my novel.

When combined with ‘has’, ‘begun’ is part of the past perfect tense. This is typically used when describing a completed action in relation to another event:

I had begun to write when my computer died.

The auxiliary verb and past participle in sentences like these can sometimes be separated by a negative, such as ‘not’ or ‘cannot’, as in the following:

I have not begun to write my essay yet.

The Difference

The difference between ‘began’ and ‘begun’ is a matter of tense. Remember that the simple past tense (‘began’) does not require an auxiliary verb, while the past participle (‘begun’) always needs one.

I have began attending art classes.Incorrect 

I have begun attending art classes.Correct

I begun dancing when I was three years old.Incorrect

I began dancing when I was three years old.Correct

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Comments (20)

    1. Hi, Vinayak. Could you clarify what you intend by ‘well begun is half done’? If you can, we can try to make some grammatical recommendations.

      1. I’m sure Vinayak was asking about the well-known proverb “Well begun is half done.” and was wondering why it didn’t follow these rules.
        My assumption as to an answer to his question is that since the proverb is very old (referred to by Aristotle) we’re probably looking at a translation issue. More than likely, when translating into English, the word begun was used because of it rhyming with done in an attempt to make the proverb easier to remember.

        1. Ah, apologies. Didn’t know the phrase until now! Translation might be part of the issue, but more important is that it’s not meant to be a full grammatical sentence. If you unpack it, it would be something like ‘Something that has begun well is half way to completion’, which fits the rules above.

  1. Hi! I think what Vinayak meant to ask was like in the case of ‘well done’. I think the statement is correct. He only needed more explanation to help him understand it. I really don’t have one now, so, don’t ask me. Thanks!

    1. Hi, Debra. That should be either ‘the holidays have begun’ (present perfect tense) or ‘the holidays began’ (simple past tense).

    1. Hi, Jordan. ‘Begun’ is a past participle, so it should be combined with a helper verb (e.g. ‘had begun’). We’re not sure whether ‘began’ or ‘begun’ fit in that sentence as it stands, though, since ‘says’ is the present tense (you’ve also got a sentence fragment in the first clause there). You could say, ‘Before and after the storm began, Stella’s face said it all.’

    1. Hi, Vivek. ‘Is’ is a present tense verb, so it cannot be used with the past participle ‘begun’. The correct phrase would therefore be ‘the program has begun’. However, keep in mind too that British English only uses ‘program’ for computer programs. In any other context, it would be ‘programme’ instead.

    1. Hi, Zoe. As mentioned in our post, ‘begun’ is a past participle, so it is always preceded by ‘has’, ‘have’ or ‘had’. Your sentence needs ‘began’, and it should read as follows: ‘Clean-up efforts that began in the 1990s are ongoing.’

    1. Hi, April. As mentioned in the post, if you have a helper verb such as ‘has’ (in your case, as part of ‘hasn’t’) in your sentence, you will need the past participle. So your sentence should read ‘I’m over today and it hasn’t even begun.’

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