I see conversations like the following a lot:

A: My car won't start.
B: Does it crank?
A: Yes but it won't turn over.
B: Wait, I'm confused. So, it tries?
A: Well it makes a sound.
B: Like whir whir whir or just the clicks?
A: Yes.

What terms and phrases are generally used in the context of observations made of a car starting (or attempting to) and what's the difference between them? I can think of:

  • The clicking sound (not sure what that's called).
  • Crank
  • Turn over (I think that means the same thing as crank? Or is it referring to the moment it moves beyond the attempts and actually starts? Car won't crank, turn over, or start is a good example of a question title where confusion may be present.)
  • Start
  • Maybe other things (like here somebody used the word "catch").

There seems to be a further bit of confusion regarding how far it gets when trying to start, which I can't really describe accurately since I don't know the words, but the progression seems to be:

  • No clicks at all.
  • Clicks only.
  • That "sad" sounding attempt e.g. with a dying battery (and there's also the "really sad" version of this where it just sort of buzzes a little or tries exactly once).
  • A "full strength" failed attempt e.g. a broken fuel pump.
  • An actual full start then an immediate ramp down and stall e.g. an ECU problem or something.
  • A full, happy start.

Is there terminology that can clearly distinguish between those?


2 Answers 2


I'd say the following, which seem fairly universal:

  • Nothing - the worst option, you turn the key and nothing happens at all - either the battery is flat, the immobiliser is misbehaving, or the starter solenoid isn't getting any signal/power.

  • Clicking - the starter is engaging, or trying to, but it's not turning the engine. It might be that it's failing to engage, or there isn't any power getting to the starter itself.

  • Clicking and whining - the starter is engaging, but can't turn the engine. Either not enough power to turn it over of (worst!) the engine has siezed...

  • Whirring (with or without clicking) - the starter it turning, but isn't engaged - most likely the solenoid has failed

  • Slow Cranking - the starter is trying to turn the engine, but not fast enough to fire - usually down to a poor battery

  • Fast Cranking - the engine is turning over quickly, but won't fire. It will be missing Spark, Fuel or compression on one or more cylinders...

  • Very Fast Cranking - another really bad one, this means there is a serious lack of compression!

  • Trying to fire / Coughing - the engine turns over fine, and 'coughs' as it tries to fire, but won't keep going - Usually either a problem with ECU/spark, or not enough fuel getting through

  • Starting, but quickly cutting out - usually the same causes as coughing

  • Running - Happy engine!

  • Where does "turn over" fit in?
    – Jason C
    Mar 30, 2017 at 15:18
  • 2
    To me, "turn over" is synonymous with "crank"
    – Nick C
    Mar 30, 2017 at 15:18
  • 2
    To clarify - the term "crank" comes from the days before electric starters, when people would use a crank-shaped handle to turn over the engine in order to start it manually.
    – Nick C
    Mar 30, 2017 at 15:20
  • 3
    I like this answer. We gave up trying to get car owners to describe this problem with words. We now ask for a cell phone video of the dash instruments during a start attempt. Mar 30, 2017 at 19:40
  • Agree on everything but "Turn over". Turn over to me is synonymous to start. In fact, your 3rd to last bullet point when you mention "turns over fine" to me that means, "starts fine". Anyway, it would definitely help if everyone was "on the same page" :). Mar 6, 2018 at 18:30

I don't think this question has a solid answer, but if we're looking to solidify definitions on this site, then I'll propose this (and it's what I use as well):

Crank = starter motor turning the engine

Turn Over = motor actually starts up

  • I'll disagree, of course its all a matter of opinion but my experience folks say turning over specifically to describe a not-starting condition. Essentially synonymous with "cranking", although perhaps cranking slowly as in "barely turning over".
    – agentp
    Mar 31, 2017 at 19:38
  • Outside of you and @goku_da_master in the comments above, I have literally never heard anyone use "turn over" in that way.
    – JakeRobb
    Aug 4 at 16:46

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