What are the differences between "to start off" and " start out" ?

I think they have a common sense which is "to begin to do something" but apparently also they have some unique usages.

Do you think they are interchangeable in the following sentences I excerpted from Oxford Dictionaries.

1.She started out on her legal career in 2008.

2.When the band started out, they couldn't afford much equipment.

3.I started out to write a short story, but it soon developed into a novel.

4.The discussion started off mildly enough.

5.Let's start off with some gentle exercises.

6.We started off by introducing ourselves.

7.I started off working quite hard, but it didn't last.

8.Start out by accessing your list of Applications from your Androids Home screen.

I read this thread about "start vs start off" and the answer is very good but that question does not overlap my question.

3 Answers 3


1a. She started out on her legal career in 2008.
1b. She started off on her legal career in 2008.
1c. She started her legal career in 2008.

I think 1a and 1b pretty much mean the same thing, but I prefer 1c.

2a. When the band started out, they couldn't afford much equipment.
2b. When the band started off, they couldn't afford much equipment.

I like 2a, but 2b throws me for a little bit. At first, I'm assuming the band has packed up their vans and are starting a trip somewhere. It's only when I reach the end of the sentence that I realize that we are talking about the band members' careers, not a road trip. I suppose someone could argue the same thing could happen with 2a, but I like out better than off in this sentence. Still, neither is grammatically incorrect.

3a. I started out to write a short story, but it soon developed into a novel.
3b. I started off to write a short story, but it soon developed into a novel.
3c. I started to write a short story, but it soon developed into a novel.

I like 3a, don't care much for 3b, but like 3c the best. I'm at a loss to explain why, though. I think perhaps these could all be improved if we say writing instead of to write:

I started off writing a short story, but it soon developed into a novel.

So maybe the consecutive prepositions are throwing me. They're not wrong – we often see back-to-back prepositions when dealing with phrasal verbs. However, I still like my revised version better.


That is a good question. In pretty much all your cases, they could be interchanged, but would feel very slightly different.

One typically "starts off" on a journey - conveying a feeling of movement. One can also "start out" on a journey, but it feels more like the point in time when you began rather than pointing at the whole journey itself.

In #1, by using starting out, it points to the fact that the career had just begun - time reference, not necessarily to the length of time.

Again, #2 and #3 points to time.

#4, puts more feeling to the discussion as a whole, not that it had just begun. #5, again, whole exercise experience here, also implying that things will change over time. #6,#7, Journey and contrasting beginning to end with statements.

The last one: "Start out by accessing your list..." again is pointing to a specific point in time - when is being emphasised more than what you are doing.

Interchanging "off" for "out" on the above are all still valid, but changes (and only slightly) where the writer wanted the focus.

This is all personal conjecture here and I welcome other opinions. I really had to think hard about each reading to get a feel for the difference here, which should give you an idea of how subtle this topic is.

  • Thank you Mr.Dorgan.I appreciate your taking the time to answer my question. Can I ask , did you make comments about original sentences or the sentences you rewrote by changing "start of" with "start out"
    – Mrt
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 19:15

All of your sentenced are grammatically and semantically sound.

"Start out" and "start off" are interchangeable, EXCEPT where using "start off" might be mistakenly taken in the sense of to literally start traveling, which is not a meaning normally attributed to "start out". You have to be the judge of whether that misinterpretation might occur.

So, if you are speaking of an actual journey, "start off" works better, but note that

both "start out for [destination]" and "start off for [destination]" unequivocally convey a sense of beginning literal travel.

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