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Spanish has two everyday verbs that can be used for "to begin" or "to start": empezar and comenzar. They usually can be used interchangeably. Although empezar is more common than comenzar, comenzar doesn't come across as conspicuously formal like its English cognate, "commence." Both empezar and comenzar are conjugated irregularly.
Correct Way to Use 'Empezar' and 'Comenzar'
To say "to begin to do something," you can use either of the verbs followed by the preposition a and an infinitive:
- El web empieza a generar dinero. The website is beginning to generate money.
- ¿A qué hora empezó a nevar? At what time did it begin to snow?
- Cuando llegamos a Quito, comenzaba a llover. When we arrived at Quito, it was beginning to rain.
- Uruguay comienza a estudiar la producción de energía nuclear. Uruguay is beginning to study the production of nuclear energy.
- Empiezo a pensar por ti mismo. I am beginning to think just like you.
- La inflación va a empezar muy pronto a bajar. Inflation is going to begin to drop very soon.
Each verb can stand by itself without an object:
- La lluvia empieza a caer más y más fuerte. The rain is beginning to fall harder and harder.
- El mitin comenzó finalmente a las 10 de la noche. The meeting finally began at 10 p.m.
- Bueno, pues sí, empezamos con esto. Good, then, let's get started with it. (Literally, with this.)
- La boda comenzará a las 12:30 hora local. The wedding will begin at 12:30 local time.
When either verb is followed by a gerund, it often has the meaning of "to begin by" or "to start out":
- Empezó estudiando en el taller del escultor famoso. She started out studying in the famous sculptor's studio.
- Comencé trabajando 10 horas por día como limpiadora de casa. I started out working 10 hours per day as a housecleaner.
- Empezamos corriendo juntos el primer kilómetro. We begin by running the first kilometer together.
Although probably not as common as in English, the two verbs can also take direct objects to indicate what is getting started:
- Tiene muchos consejillos para comenzar un negocio. He has many tips for starting a business.
- La ciudad empezó la reparación de la calles en abril. The city began the street repairs in April.
Other Verbs for "To Begin"
As just shown, you often can use the verbs to refer to beginning an activity with the activity as the object of the verb. But it is also common to use the verb emprender for that purpose. Emprender is especially common when referring to the beginning of travel.
- No quiere emprender la tarea sin ayuda. He doesn't want to do the task without help.
- Dentro de unos minutos emprendo el viaje. Within a few minutes I begin the trip.
- Emprendieron el reto de construir un proyecto conjunto. They began the challenge of building a project together.
- Emprendí el vuelo en dirección hacia donde el sol se pone. I began the flight in the direction of the sunset.
The verb originarse often translates "to begin" when it is used to mean "to originate":
- El problema se originaba cuando navegaba ciertas páginas web. The problem started when I was going to certain web pages.
- La crisis económica mundial se originó en EEUU. The world economic crisis began in the U.S.
Use of Verb Tense To Indicate Beginning
Often, when speaking of events in the past, the preterite tense is used in preference to the imperfect to indicate that an activity began. A form of "begin" isn't necessarily used in translation, however.
A common example is the verb conocer, which often means "to know a person." The difference between "Conocía a Katrina" and "Conocí a Katrina is roughly the difference between "I knew Katrina" and "I began to know Katrina." Typically, the second sentence would be translated as "I met Katrina." Other examples:
- Yo tenía calor. (I was warm.) Tuve calor. (I began to be warm. I got warm.)
- Ella sabía la verdad. (She knew the truth.) Supo la verdad. (She began knowing the truth. She found out the truth.)
This concept is further explained in the lesson on using the past tense with certain verbs.