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"Find out" and "Figure out": The Difference in Meaning and Usage (Audio Reading Included)


When to use "find out" and when to use "figure out"
What's the difference between "find out" and "figure out"?

Recommended level: Upper intermediate


Quick Reference

  • "Find out" and "figure out" are idiomatic phrasal verbs.

  • "Find out" means to learn or discover something you didn't know, or to learn or discover that someone has been doing something dishonest or illegal. ("Guess what I just found it!")

  • "Figure out" means to do mental work in order to solve a problem, or to try to understand something or someone ("I can't figure this/him/her out.")

  • "Find out" is NOT an easy replacement for the word "find." For instance, you can say "I can't find my phone," but it's not common at all to say "I can't find out my phone."

  • Figuring out something is almost always a conscious activity, whereas you can find out something by chance (by someone telling you a secret, for instance).

Imagine you are trying to solve a math problem. You have been working on it for several minutes, and you are starting to sweat. You feel frustrated because you can't seem to solve the equation. In this case, are you having a hard time figuring out the answer, or finding out the answer? Or are both options possible? That's what we're going to find out today.


So, what is the difference between "find out" and "figure out"? Let's start with some definitions:


Find out: To discover or learn something you didn't know, or to discover that someone has been doing something dishonest or illegal.


Figure out: To do mental work in order to solve a problem, or to try to understand something or someone.


Of course, definitions without examples are just cold data, so let's put these phrasal verbs into context and look at them a little more closely. Here we go:


"I didn't tell anyone that it was my birthday today. How did you find out?" (Meaning, how did you learn or discover this information? Where did you hear or read that today was my birthday?)


"Ugh! I've done everything I can, but I still can't figure out why my phone isn't working." (Meaning, I still don't understand why my phone isn't working. I have tried multiple approaches to fixing it, but none of them have worked.)


"What's the meeting going to be about?" "I don't know. I guess we'll have to attend to find out." (Meaning, I guess we will have to attend the meeting if we want to learn or discover what the topic of the meeting is going to be.)


"It took me a while, but I was able to figure out the answer to the problem." (Meaning, I used my reasoning abilities to solve the problem. I found the answer by doing mental work.)


"One day, Anika is nice, the next day she's rude. I can't figure her out." (Meaning, I can't "solve" Anika. This means I don't understand her or the reasons behind her actions and behaviours.)


"The illegal bank transfers were found out by the federal police." (Meaning, the illegal bank transfers were discovered by the police. The dishonest activity was discovered as a result of investigative work by the federal police.)


Did you get all that? If not, that's okay. To truly understand the difference, let's take a look at the first example sentence again. It said, "I didn't tell anyone that it was my birthday today. How did you find out?" How did you find out means how did you learn or discover that it was my birthday?


Guess what? You can also say "I didn't tell anyone that it was my birthday today. How did you figure it out?" In this case, you mean what kind of mental work and problem solving did you do to learn that today was my birthday?


Remember, "find out" means to learn or discover something, often by chance, and "figure out" means to solve something by using your mental abilities, including deductive and inductive reasoning.


But wait! You can also "find out" something intentionally as well. Let's take a look at a quick example which illustrates this in a clearer way:


"We have to be at Maxime's house in 30 minutes. I'm a bit busy at the moment, so can you find out his address for me?"


In this case, your friend is asking you if you can learn Maxime's address. To do this, you might look through your texting history (because you remember seeing his address somewhere in it), or you might text someone who's also going to Maxime's house and who knows his address. You have to do a bit of investigating in this case, but you're not really solving a problem--you're just looking and trying to find something that already exists.


(As a bonus note, you can also "look up" an address. This means to search and find something in a database, directory, or search engine.)


Now, let's go back to that difficult math problem at the very beginning of this page. Remember, you were having a hard solving the problem. Should you use "find out" or "figure out" in this case? Or maybe both depending on your intention? Well, there are several possibilities. Let's look at them now...


"I can't figure out the answer." (Meaning, I can't do the calculations necessary to reach the desired answer. I'm having a difficult time taking the correct steps to solve the problem and find its answer.)


"I can't figure out the problem." (Meaning, I can't solve this problem. I'm having a difficult time understanding it.)


"I can't find out the answer." / "I can't find out the answer to this problem." (Meaning, I can't discover the solution to this problem. "Find out" is possible in this case because the answer to a math problem is something that already exists, and you just need to do the necessary investigative work to find it.)


To practice, answer these questions:


  1. How did you find out about this website? (Ex: "I found out about it on Google/social media/etc.")

  2. Can you figure out this math problem without using a calculator?: 25+74-7+45. (Ex: "I need a calculator to figure it out." / "I can figure it out without a calculator.")

Okay, now that we have a better understanding of the basic differences in meaning between "find out" and "figure out," let's take a closer look at each one to see how they can be used grammatically. We'll also look at some common sentences with each phrase.


How to Use "Find out"

Learn how to use "find out"
"How did you find out?!"

"Find out" can be used transitively or intransitively. This means it can be followed by an object or it can stand on its own. It just depends on what you want to say. Remember the birthday party? How did you find out? In this case, "find out" is being used as an intransitive phrasal verb, meaning it isn't followed by an object. However, you can find out many different things and use "find out" as a transitive phrasal verb, too. Let's take a quick look:


"I found out the answer to your problem."


"I found out their address."


"Did you find out the name of the company?"


"We need to find out more information."


"I want you to find out where he lives."


In these cases, you will notice that "find out" is not separated. This is its typical usage. While you could technically say "I found their address out," it's much more common to say "I found out their address" if you mean to say that you learned or discovered their address. The only exception to this is with pronouns. As a quick grammar reminder that applies to all phrasal verbs, if you use a pronoun with a phrasal verb, you must put it in the middle of the phrasal verb. For instance, you can say "I found it out online," but not "I found out it online."


Now, you might be wondering why I have been using the words "learn or discover." Well, you can discover something by chance. For example, "I found out that Dorothy is cheating on Dennis." In this case, someone probably told you this information. You didn't ask for it, but maybe your gossipy friend decided to tell you.


You can learn and discover things, or "find out" things, by watching videos, reading books, scrolling through social media, or listening to podcasts or audiobooks. For instance, "I was watching a video on capital cities around the world, and I found out that Canberra, not Sydney or Melbourne, is the capital city of Australia." In this case, you learned this information for the first time. You found it out!


Okay, now let's look at some common structures and sentences that use "find out."


"How did you find out about the job posting?" (You can find out about something or someone.)


"I'm going to find out what time the store closes." (You can follow "find out" with question words, such as who, what, where, when, why, how, how many, how much, and which.)


"Did you ever find out if the money was returned?" (You can find out if something happened happens, or will happen.)


"I found out that Veronica is moving to Italy." (You can follow "find out" with a "that" clause.)


"She found out the reason for the decision." (You can follow "find out" with a noun or noun phrase. Typically, these are phrases like "the answer," "the reason," "the solution," or "the explanation," but you can use a number of other phrases, such as "We're trying to find out the total value of the lost books.")


One more note about "find out"...

The police can "find someone out," meaning they can find someone who is involved in dishonest, questionable, and/or illegal activity. This usage typically places the person who is found out in the middle of the phrasal verb, but it's possible to put the person at the end as well. Let's look at two examples:


"I can't believe they found Mark out. He was being so careful!" (This means "I can't believe they discovered Mark's dishonest activities.")


"You'd better be careful with these banking transactions. It would be very easy for the police to find you out." (This is also following the "use a pronoun between a phrasal verb" rule.)


As you can see, you can find out--meaning, discover--the dishonest activities of people. Or you can find dishonest people out. In this way, "find out" is very often used to discuss criminal cases and investigations. For example, "We won't find out the evidence until the trial," or "The investigation team found out that more money was missing than was originally reported."


So, now that we know how to use "find out," let's find out more about "figure out."


How to Use "Figure out"

Learn how to use "figure out."
"I can't figure this out."

"Figure out" is both separable and transitive. That means it needs an object, and the object can come in the middle or at the end of "figure out." However, it typically comes at the end unless you're using a pronoun. Let's take a look at the various structures that are possible with "figure out." Most of these structures are also possible with "find out":


"Can you figure this out for me?" (You can figure it out, figure this out, figure that out, etc.)


"Did you figure out why Rick left early?" (You can follow "figure out" with a question word, such as who, what, where, when, why, how, how many, how much, which, etc.)


"We need to figure out if we need a bigger budget for this project." (You can follow "figure out" with an "if" clause.)


"He figures out problems quickly." (You can follow "figure out" with a noun or noun phrase.)


"She figured out that the flowers would grow better in the garden behind the house, not the one in front of it." (You can follow "figure out" with a "that" clause.)


Remember, you need to figure out something or someone. To be specific, you can't say "I can't figure out." You must say "I can't figure him/her/them/this/that/it out" or "I can't figure out why/who/if/etc."


Hopefully, now that you have read this page, you will be able to figure out when and how to use "figure out" correctly.


Conclusion

There is a clear difference between "find out" and "figure out." "Find out" means to learn or discover something you didn't know before, or to discover that someone is involved in dishonest activity, and "figure out" means to try to solve something, or to try to understand something or someone. You can sometimes use them in the same contexts, but the intended meaning of your sentence will be different.


Well, that's it. I hope you enjoyed this resource. If you did, and you want to learn more phrasal verbs--while supporting my work at the same time!--please consider picking up a copy of my book, 100 Practical English Phrasal Verbs. It has over 900 example sentences and 20 context-based lessons. Check it out and start making real progress with real language today.


3 Comments


Darek Bałdys
Darek Bałdys
Oct 08, 2023

Super 👍

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thaithai89
Aug 25, 2023

Alex, you are a genius at teaching. The explanations are simple, with a lot of specific examples. Grammar is my favorite thing, and I recently learned a new way to use "find out" and "figure out" properly. I appreciate the information and advice you have shared.

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Alex
Alex
Aug 25, 2023
Replying to

That's kind of you to say. Thank you. I'm glad you've advanced your knowledge with this lesson.

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