English Grammar Explained To A Foreigner

Posted at 21:15pm on 28th April 2011

Dear Mel, it's FP here.

I hope you had a good Easter. I know I did.

I wonder if you could please enlighten me about this thing that has been nagging me for quite some time now:

Is it "started" or "startled"?

For example,

Jenna snuck up behind Ben. He started.
Jenna snuck up behind Ben. He startled.

Is either correct? Which one is to prefer? Does U.S English differ from UK English in this case?

Thank you for your time,
Best Regards,


Mel's Comment:

Dear FP,   Good to hear from you.  We've had (and are still having) a wonderful Easter.  In fact, my husband is still lying outside on the patio in the sunshine at 5.30pm!   In your two examples, the first is correct; the second is completely wrong.  However, you could say: Jenna snuck up behind Ben.  He *was* startled.  (UK English would say: Jenna *sneaked* up behind Ben . . .  *snuck* is US English).   Started has many meanings.  As well as meaning "began" (past tense of begin) it also means "jumped" or made a sudden movement brought about by pain or surprise.   Startle is a verb, meaning to give a shock or surprise to someone, or to cause a person to *start*.  
  • You can say "he started" (verb) as a complete sentence, meaning he jumped because he was surprised / hurt.  "I grabbed his broken arm.  He started."
  • You can say "she started making dinner" (verb) meaning she began to prepare the meal.
  • You can say "he started her / him" but it would have to be followed by whatever was the object of the sentence - hence: "he started her on her multiplication tables, then left her to complete them."
  • You can say "he startled" (verb) but it would have to be followed by "her" or "him" because this is something that the subject of the sentence does *to* a person / thing.  Hence: "he came out from behind a tree and startled her."  Or "he startled her when he came out from behind a tree."
  • You can also say "he *was* startled" (describing a person's reaction to someone/something).  "He was startled when she started the car behind him."
Hope that helps.  US English and UK English are alike in this case.  Have a good week.

Your Comments:

29th May 2014
at 3:28pm
I don't agree that the 2nd example given by FP is wrong. According to every dictionary I have checked, 'startled' can be a verb meaning "to start involuntarily, as from surprise or alarm" or "to become alarmed, frightened, or surprised." We don't see this usage in modern English, but it is not incorrect.
30th May 2014
at 2:27pm
Hi, Esther,
You're quite right to say that 'startle' can be a verb. I'm not disputing that. Only that FP's use of it was wrong. The Oxford dictionary defines it as 'to give a shock or surprise to someone; to cause a person to start with surprise or sudden alarm.'

Consequently, the sentence requires a subject - I / she / he etc. followed by an object - me / her / him etc. The sentence would then read: 'Every time I ring the bell my mum jumps because *I startle her*'.

If you use the word 'startled' it can be either a verb (in the past tense) or an adjective. Hence, 'Last time I rang the bell, *I startled my mum*'.

Or - describing her (i.e. an adjective) 'Last time I rang the bell, my mum *was startled*'.

What you can't say, as FP wrote above, is 'my mum startled' (meaning she jumped). You would need an object to say who she startled: 'my mum startled me'.

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