‘Comenzar’ vs ‘Empezar’ vs ‘Iniciar’

In short comenzar‘ and ‘empezar‘ are synonyms and can be used interchangeably. ‘Comenzar‘ is felt to be slightly more formal and is more often used in writing and ‘empezar‘ is used (ever so slightly!) more in spoken language.

Comenzaron / Empezaron a estudiar juntos en la biblioteca.

They started to study together in the library.

Comenzó / Empezó a llover hace una hora.

It started raining an hour ago.

Iniciar‘ is also a synonym when used as a transitive verb (a verb that takes an object), but it cannot be used without an object (unlike ‘comenzar‘ and ‘empezar‘). The reflexive ‘iniciarse‘ needs* to be used instead.

Iniciar‘ with ‘en‘ also has the alternative meaning of ‘to initiate into (a cult / society)‘.

¡Después de un ano de pruebas, me iniciaron en el culto!

After a year of trials, they initiated me into the cult!

*Erika´s top tip – even though the Royal Spanish Academy still states that ‘iniciar‘ can NEVER be intransitive, in Mexico and much of Latin America it IS now frequently used intransitively (i.e., without an object)!

Comenzar‘ vs ‘empezar‘ vs ‘iniciar

As stated previously, ‘comenzar‘ and ’empezar’ are synonymous with one another.

Iniciar‘ on the other hand shouldn’t (technically) be used intransitively (i.e., without a direct object); it’s also used exclusively in a couple of expressions that I’ll cover in detail later.

Let’s get into the nitty gritty!

Comenzar‘, ‘empezar‘ and ‘iniciar‘ as intransitive verbs

Verbs can be either intransitive or transitive, the difference being that transitive verbs REQUIRE AN OBJECT to make sense, whereas intransitive verbs DO NOT!

El maestro empezó la clase a las 08:00. (‘la clase’ is the object)

La clase comenzó a las 08:00. (this sentence has no object)

Erika’s top tip – some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive! Both ‘comenzar‘ and ‘terminar‘ fall into this category. In Mexico, ‘iniciar‘ is often used intransitively too!

Comenzar‘, ‘empezar‘ and ‘iniciar‘ as transitive verbs

When used transitively (i.e., with a direct object) ‘comenzar’, ‘empezar’ and ‘iniciar’ are interchangeable and can normally be translated to either ‘to start‘ or ‘to begin‘.

Comenzaré / Empezaré / Iniciaré la reunión en cuanto lleguen a la oficina.

I will start the meeting as soon as they arrive at the office.

Mi primo comenzó / empezó / inició la escuela cuando tenía tres años.

My cousin began school when he was three.

El político comenzó / empezó / inició su campaña el martes.

The politician started his campaign on Tuesday.

With the preposition ‘a

Both ‘comenzar’ and ‘empezar’ take the preposition ‘a‘ when followed by an infinitive. This expression means ‘to start or begin to do (something)‘.

Iniciar‘ can also be used with ‘a‘, but it’s not heard as frequently as the other two.

¡Comenzará a hacer algo al respecto mañana!

He will start to do something about it tomorrow!

¡Empezó a llover! (it´s very unlikely that you´ll hear this phrase with ‘iniciar‘)

It started to rain!

Erika’s top tip – the equivalent structure in English can be formed with both the gerund (‘-ing‘) AND the infinitive! ‘Empezó a llover‘ can therefore be translated to ‘It started rainingORIt started to rain‘!

Comenzar‘ / ‘empezar‘ / ‘inciar‘ meanings + expressions

Empezar‘ and ‘comenzar‘ both have the following meanings –

  • To start something (class, activity, etc.)

  • To start using or consuming something

  • To indicate where something starts

To start something

All three verbs (yes, ‘iniciar‘, too) can be used to talk about the start / beginning of something –

A qué hora empieza / comienza / inicia la clase?

What time does the class start?

Cuando termina la primavera, empieza / comienza / inicia el verano.

When spring ends, summer begins.

To start using or consuming something

Empezar‘ (and, to a lesser extent, ‘comenzar‘) can also be used to indicate that one has started consuming something –

¡Ya empezamos el vino!

We’ve already opened the wine!

¡El señor se comió* 10 tacos y empezó un decimoprimero!

The man gobbled up 10 tacos and started an eleventh!

*Erika’s top tip – the intensive ‘se is used here to indicate that the man ate the 10 tacos in their entirety.

To indicate where something starts

Both ‘empezar‘ and ‘comenzar‘ can also be used to indicate where something starts. In Mexico and parts of Latin America, ‘iniciar‘ can also be used in this context (intransitively, without that pesky object) –

La carrera empieza / comienza / inicia en la Calle Medellín.

The race starts on Medellín Street.

La palabra ‘por‘ empieza / comienza / inicia con la letra ‘p‘.

The word ´por´ starts with the letter ‘p‘.

Additionally, ‘iniciar‘ can also mean ‘to introduce to‘ or ‘to initiate into‘ (‘iniciar en‘).

¡Cuidado! ‘Comenzar‘ and ‘empezarCAN´T be used to mean ‘to initiate into‘!

¡Su amigo la inició en la masonería!

Her friend initiated her into the Freemasons!

Expressions with ‘comenzar‘, ‘empezar‘ and ‘iniciar

empezar / comenzar + por + infinitive

Both ‘empezar‘ and ‘comenzar‘ can be used with “por + infinitive” to mean ‘to begin by + -ing‘.

La maestra comenzó por presentarse.

The professor began by introducing herself.

El luchador empezó por levantar a su oponente al aire.

The wrestler started by lifting his opponent into the air.

para empezar / comenzar

Para comenzar‘ or ‘para empezar‘ are the Spanish equivalent of ‘to start with‘ –

¡Para comenzar, quiero agradecer a todos por venir!

To start with, I want to thank everybody for coming!

empezar / comenzar de nuevo

Comenzar de nuevo‘ or ‘empezar de nuevo‘ can be translated as ‘to start over‘ or ‘to do again‘ –

¡Todos vamos a tener que empezar de nuevo ahora!

We are all going to have to start over now!

empezar / comenzar de cero

If you want to say ‘start from scratch‘, both ‘comenzar de cero‘ or ‘empezar de cero‘ can be used –

Ok, ¡comencemos de cero!

Ok, let’s start from scratch!

Erika’s top tip – in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, you will occasionally hear these expressions used with ‘iniciar‘. Do bear in mind that this isn’t “grammatically correct” usage (according to the Royal Spanish Academy, at least)!

Other expressions using ‘comenzar‘, ‘empezar‘ and ‘iniciar

When any of the above verbs are used in an idiom, they are sometimes but NOT ALWAYS interchangeable.

Let´s look at a few –

por algo se empieza = it’s a start (used to say that something may not be impressive, but that it could lead to greater things)

no hay que empezar la casa por el tejado = don’t put the cart before the horse (things have to be done in order)

empezar con el pie derecho = to get off to a good start (this one can be used with ‘comenzar‘ as well)

iniciar sesión = to log on (to a computer)

iniciar una aplicación = to open an app

iniciar un expediente administrativo = to initiate an administrative inquiry

Other similar verbs

To start a car, engine, or machine one uses ‘arrancar‘ or ‘poner en marcha‘.

Espera, voy a arrancar mi computadora.

Wait, I´m going to start up my computer.

Empezar‘ / ‘comenzar‘ stem change

Inciar‘ is a regular ‘ar’ verb and is therefore conjugated like ‘hablar‘, while both ‘comenzar‘ and ‘empezar‘ are stem-changing verbs.

Stem changing verbs resemble regular verbs, but a letter is either replaced or added to their “stem” (the part of the verb to which endings are added) in certain tenses.

In the case of ‘comenzar‘ and ‘empezar‘, the second ‘e’ becomes ‘ie’ in the present indicative, present subjunctive, and imperative (except in the ‘nosotros‘ and ‘vosotros‘ forms).

What makes these verbs a spelling bee champion´s nightmare is the fact that they also both end in ‘zar‘, so the ‘z’ has to change to a ‘c’ when followed by an ‘e‘.

Let’s look at some examples –

comenzé = comencé (1st person preterite)

comienzes = comiences (2nd person present subjunctive)

Comenzar‘ conjugation

 PresentPretéritePresent subjunctiveImperative  
yo    comienzocomencécomience
tú    comienzascomenzastecomiencescomienza / no comiences
él/ella/ustedcomienzacomenzócomiencecomience / no comience  
nosotros/as    comenzamoscomenzamoscomencemoscomencemos / no comencemos
vosotros/as    comenzáiscomenzasteiscomencéiscomenzad / no comiencéis
ellos/ellas/ustedes  comienzancomenzaroncomiencencomiencen / no comiencen

Empezar‘ conjugation

PresentPretéritePresent subjunctiveImperative  
yo    empiezoempecéempiece
tú    empiezasempezasteempiecesempieza / no empieces
él/ella/ustedempiezaempezóempieceempiece / no empiece 
nosotros/as    empezamosempezamosempecemosempecemos / no empecemos
vosotros/as    empezáisempezasteisempecéisempezad / no empecéis
ellos/ellas/ustedes  empiezanempezaronempiecenempiecen / no empiecen

Iniciar‘ conjugation

PresentPretéritePresent subjunctiveImperative  
yo    inicioiniciéinicie
tú    iniciasiniciasteiniciesinicia / no inicies
él/ella/ustediniciainicióinicieinicie / no inicie  
nosotros/as    iniciamosiniciamosiniciemosiniciemos / no iniciemos
vosotros/as    iniciáisiniciasteisiniciéisiniciad / no iniciéis
ellos/ellas/ustedes  inicianiniciaroninicieninicien / no inicicen

Final thoughts

Hopefully, you’re now as familiar with these three verbs as you are with the back of that right (sorry lefties!) hand of yours!

Just remember that ‘empezar‘ and ‘comenzar‘ are synonyms AND that both are “stem changing” verbs, and you’ll be good to go!

Please also bear in mind that you WILL hear ‘iniciar‘ used intransitively (without that meddling object) in Latin America. This isn’t grammatically correct per se, but it IS common and 100%* acceptable.

*Let´s make that 99% so as not to offend the grammar buffs!

Oh, and make sure to check out our article on terminar‘ and ‘acabar if you’d like to find out the difference between the two!

Empezar‘, ‘comenzar‘ and ‘iniciar‘ practice

Translate these sentences into Spanish

1. We will start a new lesson next month (using ‘empezar‘)

2. Start drinking! (using ‘comenzar‘)

3. They initiated them all into the club on the same day (using ‘iniciar‘)

4. When do you start work at your new job? (using ‘empezar‘)

5. My English class starts at nine sharp (using ‘empezar‘)

6. I had to log on to my computer in order to download the program (using ‘iniciar‘)

7. We started the wedding reception with a toast (using ‘comenzar‘)

Answers –

1. El mes que viene empezaremos una nueva lección

2. ¡Comiencen a beber!

3. Los iniciaron a todos en el club el mismo día

4. ¿Cuándo empiezas a trabajar en tu nuevo trabajo?

5. Mi clase de ingles empieza a las nueve en punto

6. Tuve que iniciar sesión en mi computadora para descargar el programa

7. Comenzamos la recepción de la boda con un brindis

Rupert's lived in Mexico for nearly a decade and has been working as a Spanish teacher for even longer (over 10 years now, wow!). He specializes in simple (yet effective) explanations and is a veritable grammar-whizz.

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