In Reply to: To begin with posted by Smokey Stover on June 05, 2008 at 03:07:
: : : "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".
RRC has pointed out the flexibility of this phrase, and also that used later than the beginning it means simply "in the beginning."
The Oxford English Dictionary treats the phrase as a variant and descendant of "to begin from" and "to begin at," although in those cases the preposition is always followed by an object. I believe the phrase, as used in more modern times, is a somewhat eroded form, having lost the need for an object, or perhaps understanding the object to be "this" or whatever follows the comma. The phrase is to be interpreted as "To begin with [this]," or, in modern terms, "For starters," or "To start with."
When the phrase comes later, then it's not beginning our thought, but has a more direct, intuitive meaning. "Please, Mandy. It's not like these people were in our camp to begin with." In most of these cases you can substitute "in the first place," or as RRC suggests, "at the beginning."
The phrase as we now use it is first cited by the OED in an example from 1563. " a1563 BALE K. Johan 47 Fyrst to begyne with, we shall interdyte the lond."
The OED definition of the phrase (at least when starting a sentence) is:
" to begin with, (withal obs.), advb. phr.: At the outset, as the first thing to be considered."