Understanding phrasal verbs with ‘out’
‘Out’ means ‘outside’. There is a journey from inside to outside, a journey which takes you into the light, or into the darkness.
Let’s say you have a problem, like a maths problem. The solution is hidden deep in the problem. Your job is to work it out. Here, the image is slowly removing the answer from a dark hidden place into the light. When you’ve worked it out, the solution is there, in the light. You can see it!
Jim and Mary are trying to work out their marriage problems. By talking through their problems they begin to see solutions.
Likewise, you can also figure something out. Again, figuring out a problem means thinking about it until the solution can be seen.
I couldn’t figure out how to open the door.
It took me ages to figure out the complicated bus timetable.
When you figure it out, you can see the light!
Another case is to find things out. This involves bringing information into the light.
Sometimes you can find out accidentally:
I just found out that Mary is going to have a baby!.
I went on the internet and found out that the company doesn’t exist!
For working out, figuring out and finding out, a solution sees the light.
To come out can simply mean ‘come outside’.
Are you coming out tonight? Possibly to the pub, or the cinema etc.
Come out also means to reveal that you are gay. The idea here is that it is a secret. When someone is secretly gay, they are ‘in the closet’. Then one day, they tell their friends or family or the world that they are in fact gay. This is when he/she comes out.
Elton John came out years ago.
Again, the secret reaches the light.
To make something out means to be able to see or hear something under difficult circumstances. It is often used with ‘can’. For example, if something is far away and you can see it or read it:
I can’t make it out. A car registration for example or a bus number.
I can’t make out the signature. Here, it’s not far away, the quality is bad.
You can also use it for things you can/can’t hear, usually because of the clarity of the sound.
I find heavy metal lyrics difficult to make out.
I couldn’t make out what he was saying because of the noise.
When you can make something out, there is the lightbulb moment of throwing light onto the unknown.
Sometimes friendships can fall into darkness:
People can fall out. It means that they are no longer friends. They usually fall out over something:
Myself and Peter fell out over the money he owes me
They fell out over a stupid argument
Here are some more verbs which mean ‘go into the darkness, away from the light’:
The first is literal. To blow out a candle or a flame.
He made a wish and blew out his birthday candles.
What do you do with a finished cigarette? You put it out. (extinguish it)
Or when the room is too hot, or your blood pressure is very low? What can happen? You can faint. Lose consciousness and fall onto the floor. You can pass out.
When you pass out, what do you see? Darkness!
As well as flammable material, people can burn out. This is due to excessive stress, usually in work:
He was a stock broker, but burnt out after five years.
When you burn out, you’re finished!
We often hear of governments trying to stamp out crime. (destroy it)
Sometimes, they will phase something out.
At the moment they are phasing out free medical care. (little by little it will be gone)
When you close the curtains, you block out the light. You can also block out sounds.
Some people try to block out bad memories.
Out can be also associated with negative experiences:
If you decide to stick it out, you decide to remain in a bad situation:
I hate my new job, but my friends have advised me to stick it out, at least for another month.
Sometimes, you can stop a negative experience:
We talked him out of doing it. We persuaded him not to do something we viewed as being bad.
He was going to sell the company, but we talked him out of it.
The purpose here is to show that there is a logic and a clear line of thought running through seemingly unrelated phrasal verbs. This logic is, I believe, contained in the preposition. If you can unlock the meaning of the prepositions, you can understand better the idiomatic side of the English language.