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The Phrasal Verb 'Work Out' Explained

An explanation of the different meanings of the English phrasal verb 'Work Out', with examples and exercises.


A man on a treadmill working out in a gym

Hello and welcome to my blog all about English phrasal verbs. Each week, I take a different phrasal verb and look at how it is used by native speakers, with a focus on the different meanings that it has and the expressions and idioms that it is used in.


The phrasal verb 'work out' is a well known phrasal verb with a number of different meanings in English. I am sure that you will be familiar with at least some of them, especially as one or two have featured in popular songs in recent years. So, without further ado, let's take a look at them....


WORK OUT: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

7

Separable

Sometimes

Past tense forms

Worked out / Worked out

British or American

Both

For more explanation of the terms in the table above, click here.

 

THE BASICS

The letters A-G spelt out using different coloured plasticine on a red background

Let's make a start by examining the constituent words of 'work out', as this can offer some understanding of the different phrasal verb meanings that it has.


The verb 'to work' is a verb that I'm sure everybody will know as it is used multiple times by most English speakers daily and is a verb which is used with both love and hate in equal measure. 'To work' actually has a variety of different meanings in English, however the main two meanings are 'to engage in physical or mental activity in order to accomplish a job (often for financial reward)' and 'to function properly'.


The prepositional particle 'out' is generally used to talk about movement away from an inside, enclosed or central place or space. In addition, 'out' has many other uses as a preposition, , adjective, adverb and even a verb, but behind many of its meanings there is an underlying idea of completion or conclusion, which is relevant for some of the meanings of 'work out' that we will cover shortly.


So, now that we have covered the basics, let's take a look at the meanings of 'work out'....

 

MEANING 1: To do physical activity



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

​Potential synonyms

To do exercise

The first meaning of 'work out' that we will look at is probably the most well known of all of its different meanings and means 'to engage in physical activity'.


Typically this is by doing some form of vigorous exercise such as going running, swimming a dance class and perhaps most commonly, training in the gym. Generally when we use 'work out' in this way, we are referring to doing solo activity rather than participating in a team sport. The general idea is that we complete a session of exercise, normally for the benefit of our health and well being.


Grammatically, this meaning of 'work out' does not take a direct object and cannot be separated.


As an alternative to the verb, it is worth noting that the noun 'workout' is used equally as much as the phrasal verb form, if not even more so. For this, the constructions 'to have a workout' or 'to do a workout' are normally used in the appropriate tense.


Examples of usage....

I usually work out seven days a week and rarely have a rest day.
John was working out in the gym when his wife called him to tell him that they had won the lottery.
I've already done a workout today and don't intend to do another one.
Lisa had such a stressful day at work and so decided to have a good workout in the gym to try and forget all about it.
 

MEANING 2: To find the answer to something



CEFR Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

​To figure out, to understand

Now for the second meaning of 'work out' and for this we are moving away from physical activity and focusing instead on mental activity as the meaning is 'to find the answer to something by using your brain'. This is the first in a series of meanings which are all to do with engaging in mental activity to in order to determine some information.


For this second meaning, the idea is to undergo a mental process in order to find the answer to a question. As such, we do not use it to talk about answering questions that we already know the answer to as there is no process involved with this - we know the information already and can recall it. 'Work out' here is rather all about the mental activity required to arrive at an answer by using the available clues or information that we have.


Typically, 'work out' can be used for for things like crossword clues, sudoku, riddles, puzzles and complex quiz questions. Furthermore, it also frequently used to talk about when people attempt to understand the reasons why something happens or has happened, e.g scientists conducting experiments to understand phenomena or emergency service employees attempting to understand how a car accident has happened. In all of these cases, someone is trying to find out the answer to something by using the clues or evidence that they have.


Grammatically, this usage of 'work out' does take a direct object and is therefore separable.


It is worth noting however that often instead of a direct object, we often rephrase the question that we are trying to answer as a statement (invert the verb and the object), e.g. 'how did the accident happen?' becomes 'work out how the accident happened'. Alternatively, we can just use the question word on its own. In these cases 'work' and 'out' cannot be separated.


Examples of usage....

I've almost finished this crossword. I just can't work out this last clue!!
For years, scientists have been trying to work out how to stop volcanoes erupting but are no closer to achieving their goal.
The police have managed to work out that the murder suspect was in the area when the crime was committed but they do not have any evidence to convict her yet.
My cat has been acting very strangely and nobody in the family can work out why.
Helen was fascinated by the magician at the party and was not able to work out how he performed his illusions.
 

MEANING 3: To solve a mathematical sum

Someone working out a sum using a calculator

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To calculate

The third meaning of 'work out' is a continuation of the theme of finding the answer to something and means specifically 'to solve a mathematical sum'.


In other words, this meaning of 'work out' is to determine the numerical amount of something by using addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, or a combination of these. Again, in a similar fashion to the previous meaning, this also involves the process of calculation to arrive at the answer to something, this time a sum.


In addition, we can also use 'work out' here to give the answer of a sum once the calculation process has ended. For this we use the construction 'works out at...', with the additional preposition 'at' required before the answer to the sum. We can also use the construction 'works out to be' here in some cases.


Examples of usage....

The students were asked to work out some mathematical equations during the exam.
What is 129 x 75? Can you work out the answer without using a calculator?
I've looked at the costs for our family holiday this year and it it works out at just over £2000.00.
Roger has started buying his groceries online as it works out to be $50 cheaper a week than when he goes to the supermarket.
 

MEANING 4: To understand someone's character


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Meaning number four of 'work out' is the third and final one to do with finding the answer to something and it means specifically 'to understand someone's character'.


Unlike the previous two meanings, we often tend to use this version of 'work out' in negative sentences often with 'can't' when we are unable to understand someone's character. This is normally because they act in a strange way or exhibit some unconventional personality traits and we do not understand why they act and behave the way that they do. This meaning of 'work out' tends to be used in a negative way, especially if there is a romantic element involved.


Aside from just one person, you can also use this application of 'work out' to talk about groups of people. Again, this would almost always be in the negative sense, with the idea being that it is impossible to understand them and we will never be able to.


Examples of usage....

His behaviour is very erratic, I just can't work him out.
Helen thought she had worked Roger out, but she quickly changed her mind when he
Lisa's has never really had much success with romance. She just can't work men out.
 

MEANING 5: To plan something in detail

Three people sat around a table trying to work out a plan

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To thrash out, to plan

The fifth meaning of 'work out' is 'to plan something in detail' and this is a meaning that you are likely to come across in the business world if you need to use English in your job.


For this meaning of 'work out', we are mainly concerned with plans, systems, procedures and processes as these are all things that require a process of mental work and time to complete. The idea here is that the thing that you are planning is complex and involves many details, so a lot of thought needs to be given to it in order to plan and create it effectively. 'Work out' in this sense can be used for just one person's efforts or a collaborative effort between different people.


This form of 'work out' takes a direct object and is separable. The direct object is always the thing that you are planning.


Examples of usage....

We sat down this morning to try and work out a contingency plan for an economic recession.
When our first child was born we were completely disorganised and didn't know what to do but within a few days we had worked out a system between us of feeding the baby and making sure we both got enough sleep.
Did you manage to work out a procedure for resolving invoice queries in a timely manner?
 

MEANING 6: To have a good result


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Common

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To succeed

Our sixth meaning of 'work out' is 'to have a good result', or alternatively, 'to have the desired result'.


For this meaning, as you can guess, we are entirely focused on the results of something and if we say that 'something worked out', then it means that the end result was good or was what we wanted it to be. This can be used across a broad spectrum of situations, from romantic relationships to the execution of plans.


When 'work out' is used in this way, we often use additional collocational words such as 'in the end', 'for the best' and 'well'.


On a grammatical note, this meaning of 'work out' does not take a direct object and is not normally separable. However, there is one instance where we can use it separably with the reflexive pronoun 'itself'. When we say that something 'works itself out', we mean that a complicated or undesired situation is resolved naturally with minimal intervention.


Examples of usage....

We were worried that something would go wrong on our wedding day but thankfully everything worked out well!
I was so certain that my business would go bankrupt but at the last minute an investor stepped in and everything worked out in the end.
We had a really complicated legal issue at work last week but miraculously it worked itself out after a few days.
 

MEANING 7: To work your notice


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

​Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To work your notice

This seventh and final meaning of 'work out' is a rare meaning that is only used in very specific circumstances, but I wanted to make you aware of it nonetheless. The meaning of this seventh usage is 'to work your period of notice in a job after you have tendered your resignation'.


In other words, when you decide to leave your job within a company, there is normally a period of notice that contractually must be worked before you can leave e.g. one month. We use 'work out' here to say that a person will 'work out their notice' and stay at the company until the time when they are permitted to leave.


Examples of usage....

I'm leaving Phrasal Verbs Ltd and I am going to work out my notice as agreed with my manager.
He left the company last week. He stormed out after an argument with a co-worker and is refusing to come back or work his notice period out.
 

Question marks in different coloured overlapping speech bubbles on a black background

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to work out'....

  1. I normally exercise at the gym at least four times a week.

  2. Scientists have been trying to understand what dark matter is for many years.

  3. Can you solve this sum without using a calculator?

  4. The electoral committee are currently trying to establish a procedure for future elections.

  5. Despite their best efforts, things in their relationship didn't improve and they separated.

  6. Lisa tendered her resignation at her company and agreed to stay until the end of her notice period.

The answers will be available on next week's post.

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'GET BACK' (other variations may be possible)

  1. What time did Roger GET BACK from the airport last night?

  2. I don't ever want things to GET BACK to normal again.

  3. We need to GET BACK to the main subject of the discussion.

  4. John leant his Dad some money and he wants to know when he will GET it BACK.

  5. Lisa threatened Helen and promised to GET her BACK for what she did.

  6. I am not sure what the answer is. Can I find out and GET BACK to you?

 

That is the end of today's post. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and I sincerely hope that it has helped you a little bit further on your English learning journey.


If you found the post useful, please like and share it on social media, so together we can help as many English learners as possible to understand and master these tricky phrasal verbs.


Also, please leave any comments, questions, suggestions or examples of 'work out' below. I really love reading them. If you want to receive new blog posts directly email every week, please sign up on the form below. See you next time! James



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