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For me they both seem interchangeable, but I suspect there should be at least subtle difference in meaning. When it's more appropriate to use "start off" instead of just "start"?

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'Start off' can almost always simply be replaced with 'start'.

For things like journeys, it just adds a touch more drama. 'On the trip to Penzance, we started off (or started out) from Victoria Coach Station at 10.00am and didn't arrive till midnight'.

Sometimes we 'start off' in other ways. e.g. 'At the children's party, let's start off with a game of rounders and tire them out before we have them in the house.' Again, it could simply be replaced with 'start'.

Whether you say 'start' or 'start off' conveys little more difference in meaning than whether you say 'thank you very much' or 'many thanks'.

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