"begin + 'infinitive'" vs. "commence + 'infinitive'"

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Also, this marks Goodall’s 35th year as what she herself calls “the chimp lady,” for it was in summer 1960 that, as a young woman with no formal academic training, she trekked into the wilds of Africa and commenced to live among and study mankind’s closest relations.

As an Italian I would be happy if “commence” were normally used as a synonym of “begin” because this verb is rather similar to the Italian “cominciare”, but I observed only a few occurrences of it.

However, setting aside whether “commence” and “begin” are perfectly synonymous, the question is: Is “commence” a correct choice if, as in the example above, this verb is followed by an infinitive?

user114

Posted 2013-03-23T19:30:27.203

Reputation:

4I myself employ only noun or gerunds as objects of commence; but I have no objection to others using a marked infinitive. Some quick and dirty Ngramming suggests that this is a case of what grammarians are now calling the Great Complement Shift, in which gerunds have been for a couple of centuries gradually displacing infinitives in this role. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-23T19:58:17.727

1Carlo, I added “setting aside” in your last paragraph; if incorrect please fix – James Waldby - jwpat7 – 2013-03-24T00:19:42.803

@jwpat, thank you for having enormously improved that clause. – None – 2013-03-24T01:01:39.263

2The example shown is quite correct, but it is also quite formal. I suspect it wouldn't be heard very often except in formal circumstances such as commencement addresses. – barbara beeton – 2013-03-24T21:20:53.777

Carlo_R., did you see this http://english.stackexchange.com/a/69835/19046

– Alex B. – 2013-03-28T20:58:26.543

1@barbara beeton: You call it "correct", but I'd call it "dated/archaic". I think it's a fallacy to equate "antiquated" with "formal". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-04-01T21:47:53.450

1@FumbleFingers -- I won't argue that point. I confess to being rather antiquated, and occasionally formal, myself. But I have heard the expression (in quite formal situations) from people younger than myself. In any event, I wouldn't recommend it, and can't think of an occasion on which I'd use it. – barbara beeton – 2013-04-01T22:34:05.840

Answers

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Consider this NGram...

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...and this one...

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That should be enough to show that the modern tendency is to use start or begin rather than commence regardless of whether it's followed by an infinitive or a gerund. It also seems to confirm my own gut feeling that if you want to use commence at all (and risk sounding at least "dated"), it would probably sound less odd if you followed it with a gerund -ing form (OP's citation is relatively uncommon today).

As StoneyB comments, that increasing preference for gerund over infinitive has been called the Great Complement Shift (by analogy with the well-established term Great Vowel Shift referring to linguistic changes that occurred several centuries earlier).

Note that not all verbs are subject to this shift. For example, we always say "I want to live among the apes", never "I want living among the apes". And with He continued speaking/to speak both (valid and effectively equivalent) alternatives have remained current in relatively consistent ratios over centuries (the infinitive being 2-3 times more common).

In short, whilst there's no grammatical reason to reject commence+infinitive, the downside in terms of it not sounding very "natural" to the modern Anglophone's ear probably outweighs any benefit OP might gain by being able to "recycle" his knowledge of the equivalent Italian usage.

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2013-03-23T19:30:27.203

Reputation: 52 587

1Can you please explain why your NGram only covers the verb speak/speaking? How about other commence/commenced + other verbs. I can find plenty of examples: commenced trading, attack commenced, recording of the album commenced. – EnglishLearner – 2013-03-28T19:19:22.800

@EnglishLearner: I chose *he commenced/started/began to speak/speaking* simply because that's a more common verb for OP's context than to live/living. Grammarians/linguists call it the Great Complement Shift because it's a real phenomenon that applies across the board. It wouldn't make any appreciable difference if I'd chosen a different verb, but I thought it best to illustrate the point using a very common one... – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-03-28T21:57:15.150

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But here are the charts for commenced/started/began trading and to trade. I'm not saying the "dated" forms don't exist; of course you'll still find even current examples. But all such charts will show the same significant shift.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-03-28T21:59:28.037

I’ve played around with NGram. For some reason it’s very hard to find commenced with other verbs. However, google search is returning lots of result s for commence/commenced. Like you said, the terminology may have been outdated and is no longer in used, at least in the printed material. These are some examples of searches: A two days' meeting was commenced here. the auction has commenced, Should you commence with this initiative, farm will finally commence retail operations here, survey may be commenced here. – EnglishLearner – 2013-03-29T17:45:21.667

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@EnglishLearner: I assure you forms like "Should you commence with this initiative" would be considered "sub-standard" by all native speakers - today, and probably always in the past. You can find instances of anything on Google Internet - not least because much of it is typed by people for whom English isn't even a native tongue (also, some people are "linguistically challenged"). If you don't find a lot of instances in Google Books for commenced doing something that verb doesn't work.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-03-30T01:36:30.787

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The ‘to live’ infinitive in this sentence is used as an object of the verb commenced. According to the dictionary, the verb commence can be transitive or intransitive. When it’s being used as a transitive verb, the definition of commence is ‘to enter upon : begin’

EnglishLearner

Posted 2013-03-23T19:30:27.203

Reputation: 490

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I want to explain the difference between begin to and begin -ing as I understand it from my english teacher:

Here are the examples:

Begin to smoke

It describes the situation when somebody stopped on the street to have a cigarette.

Begin -ing smoking

Describes the situation when somebody started smoking - smoking habits.

Could it be understand that: Begin to speak - I begin to speak on my friend's birthday party.

Begin speaking - My brothers daughter began speaking when she was only one and a half.

Novison

Posted 2013-03-23T19:30:27.203

Reputation: 1