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Re: To begin with

Posted by Smokey Stover on June 05, 2008 at 03:07

In Reply to: Re: To begin with posted by RRC on June 04, 2008 at 14:12:

: : "TO BEGIN WITH"

: : Sometimes it is used in the beginning of a sentence; it means "first of all". Sometimes it is used at the end. Is there a subtle difference between the 2 usages? When used at the end, what does it contribute to the tone? thank you.

: : [Situation 1]:
: : To begin with, the teacher spoke so quickly that I couldn't understand every word.

: : [Situation 2]:
: : I was told you were just going to be working in the MC's office, which I wasn't wild about TO BEGIN WITH, but it's my understanding I'd be talking to Brookline and Joyce seeing as how they work for me.

: : Please, Mandy. It's not like these people were in our camp TO BEGIN WITH.

: : I'll tell you what else. Democrats aren't exactly loved by the beef industry TO BEGIN WITH. We're gonna get killed for causing false panic.

: Yes, it can mean different things. In your first example, it means something along the lines of "I'd like to start my remarks by saying..." or "My first complaint is...".
: I am beginning with: the teacher spoke so quickly that ... And following that with: her handwriting was so illegible that... And in conclusion: etc.

: In your other examples, it simply means "before" or "at the beginning".

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RRC has remarked on the flexibilitly of the phrase. I think this is a case in which a common phrase has eroded over the years, leaving some of it to be understood. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase is somewhat parallel to "to begin at" and "to begin from," the prepositions usually being followed by an object of some kind. That was long ago the case with "to begin with," although the form was often "to being withal." I think the phrase can be understood better if you think of it as, "To being with this," which has some synonymity nowadays with, for instance, "For staters, . . ." or "To start with ..."

In the sentences where it falls later, as in your example: " It's not like these people were in our camp TO BEGIN WITH," see if it works to substitute "in the first place." Why is it different when it comes later? I think you will probably find that it no longer means, "beginning my thought with this." It
RRC has given interesting examples that show the flexibilitly of the phrase. I think this is a case in which a common phrase has eroded over the years, leaving some of it to be understood. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase is somewhat parallel to "to begin at" and "to begin from," the prepositions usually being followed by an object of some kind. That was long ago the case with "to begin with," although the form was often "to being withal." I think the phrase can be understood better if you think of it as, "To being with this," which has some synonymity nowadays with, for instance, "For staters, . . ." or "To start with ..."

In the sentences where it falls later, as in your example: " It's not like these people were in our camp TO BEGIN WITH," see if it works to substitute "in the first place." We are no longer announce that "WE are beginning with this," since we have already begun. The words "to begin with this" have changed to "if we began with that,"

In sentences beginning, "To begin with," you sure expect some continuation, perhaps a second clause, or a continuation in a second sentence.

In a sentence like "
RRC has given interesting examples that show the flexibilitly of the phrase. I think this is a case in which a common phrase has eroded over the years, leaving some of it to be understood. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase is somewhat parallel to "to begin at" and "to begin from," the prepositions usually being followed by an object of some kind. That was long ago the case with "to begin with," although the form was often "to being withal." I think the phrase can be understood better if you think of it as, "To being with this," which has some synonymity nowadays with, for instance, "For starters, . . ." or "To sta rt with ..."

In the sentences where it falls later, as in your example: "Please, Mandy. It's not like these people were in our camp TO BEGIN WITH," you probably can substitute "in the first place," since we are no longer "beginning our thought with this." Placing the phrase later calls for a more literal direct interpretation of "to begin with," namely, at the beginning, as RRC has pointed out.

The phrase "to begin with" and its cohort of similar phrases, using at or from, goes way back in the history of the language. The specific phrase, "to begin with," used in the modern way, can be seen in examples cited by the OED from 1563, "a1563 BALE K. Johan 47 Fyrst to begyne with, we shall interdyte the lond." This is a shade misleading, as "to begin withal has a longer history, but means the same thing. The OED interprets the phrase thus:

"to begin with, (withal obs.), advb. phr.: At the outset, as the first thing to be considered."
SS