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The Phrasal Verb 'Sort Out' Explained

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

A detailed explanation of how to use the phrasal verb 'sort out' correctly like a native speaker.

A selection of records in a store sorted out into categories

Hello and welcome everyone to this instalment of Phrasal Verbs Explained; a blog which aims to help you understand English phrasal verbs in a clear and coherent way, so that you can use them to improve your language level and sound more like a native speaker.

The featured phrasal verb in this post is 'to sort out', which is a relatively informal phrasal with a number of different meanings and usages. Across these different meanings there is a general theme though, which will hopefully help to help you understand and make sense of them. So, without further ado, let's take a look at them....


Number of Meanings


Literal Meaning


Idiomatic Meaning




Past forms

Sorted out / sorted out

British or American?


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



Unlike the other phrasal verbs that we have looked at in this blog so far, 'to sort out' is only really used idiomatically and does not really have a literal meaning.

Before we look at the idiomatic usages of 'sort out', it is perhaps worth noting that it can be used as a variation of the verb 'to sort', which means either to arrange something into categories (think of a hat in a famous literary school for magicians) or to resolve a problem or difficulty.

Playing cards scattered on the ground

Examples in context....

John sorted the playing cards into different suits.
I have managed to sort the problem with the computer.

So, following that short introduction, let's take a look at the idiomatic usages of 'sort out' and how us native speakers use it....


MEANING 1: To arrange into categories (idiomatic)

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate



Transitive or Intransitive

Transitive (has a direct object)



Potential synonyms

To sort, to arrange, to organise

As we have just seen, one of the main meanings of the verb 'to sort' is to arrange something into categories or types and you'll be pleased to know that the phrasal verb 'to sort out' can also be used to mean the exact same thing 😀.

Examples of usage....

I sorted the playing cards out into different suits.
John helped Helen sort out the clothes into colour groups.

You will see from the above examples that it is perfectly fine to separate 'sort' and 'out' (like in the first example) with no difference in meaning.

Moreover, don't forget that the preposition 'into' is also required to name the end category or group.


So, you may be wondering why native speakers add the extra word 'out' when 'to sort' alone means the same thing?

While it is true that these two variations can be interchangeable with no difference in meaning, sometimes native speakers will add 'out' for extra emphasis.

In other instances however, 'sort out' does have a different meaning to 'sort', which you should be aware of.

In a situation where we want to separate or remove one type of item from the others, we would use 'sort out' rather than 'sort'.

A pile of clothes that needs to be sorted out

Imagine that you have some old clothes that you want to check through in order to decide which items you want to keep and which you want to throw away. In this instance you would say that you are sorting out the clothes that you no longer want. Using 'to sort' for this sounds incomplete as the particle 'out' adds the extra element or idea of separation.

Examples of usage....

I need to sort out the clothes that I am taking on holiday with me. INTENDED MEANING: I need to check through my clothes and decide which ones I will take on vacation
Lisa has finally sorted out which books she will donate to the charity shop. INTENDED MEANING: Lisa has finally decided which of her books she is donating to the charity shop

MEANING 2: To resolve a problem (idiomatic)

A green arrow pointing towards solutions and a red arrow pointing towards problems

​CEFR Language Level

​B2 - Upper intermediate



Transitive or Intransitive

Transitive (has a direct object)



Potential synonyms

To sort, to resolve

Commonly used with

Mess, things, problem, issue

As I mentioned before, 'to sort' has two main meanings in English: the first is to arrange something and the second is to resolve a problem. Luckily for you English learners, the second meaning of 'to sort out' is also the same meaning as the second meaning of 'sort', i.e. to resolve a problem or issue.


The short answer here is no. Both variations can be used interchangeably without any change in meaning, however like with the previous meaning, native speakers will often add the word 'out' for emphasis.

From my own perspective, I think that 'sort out' is often used by native speakers when the problem or issue is a complicated or difficult one and we tend to use 'sort' more for issues that are easier or quicker to resolve.


We often use 'sort out' with the word 'mess', which can either mean an untidy physical space like a typical teenager's bedroom or a complex situation with lots or problems. We can therefore use 'sort out' to talk about tidying the messy, untidy space as well as to resolve a complicated issue.

A red heart on a white background


For the romantics among you, if us native speakers want to talk about resolving problems in a relationship, we will often say that we need to 'sort things out'.

From a formality perspective, I would say that this meaning of 'sort out' is relatively informal. We do use it in business English, however in more formal situations and on formal documentation it should be avoided and an alternative like 'to resolve' should be used instead.

Examples of usage....

Did you manage to sort out the customer's problem? INTENDED MEANING: Were you able to resolve the customer's problem?
Helen, your bedroom is a terrible mess! Sort it out! INTENDED MEANING: Helen's bedroom is very untidy and she needs to tidy it up.
John and Roger have sorted out their differences and they are now best friends again. INTENDED MEANING: John and Roger have resolved their argument and are now friends again.
Lisa and her husband are trying to sort things out. INTENDED MEANING: Lisa and her husband are trying to resolve the problems in their relationship.

MEANING 3: To organise or arrange something (idiomatic)

​CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate



Transitive or Intransitive

​Transitive (has a direct object)



Potential synonyms

To organise, to arrange

Out third meaning of 'sort out' is to organise or arrange something, such as an event or a party. The focus here is on doing what is necessary in order for the event to happen.

Imagine that you arranging a surprise birthday party for a family member and you need to book a DJ for the music, book a suitable venue for the party, organise the decoration of the venue and invite the guests. For all of these you could say that you need to sort them out....

Examples of usage....

We have managed to sort out a great venue for my daughter's party next week.
I haven't sorted out a DJ or the decorations yet. I need to sort both of those out this weekend!

This meaning is a definite variation of the previous idiomatic meaning of resolving a problem as here we are resolving the specific problem of something not yet being organised.


MEANING 4: To provide something for someone (idiomatic)

One pair of hands holding a money bag and another pair of hands holding a house

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced


​Rare (British)

​Transitive or Intransitive

Transitive (has a direct object)



Potential synonyms

To obtain, to provide, to supply

In informal British English, it is also possible to use 'sort out' to mean to provide someone with something that they need. This is normally something that in not easy to obtain or could possibly even be something illegal. Since it is informal, I would not recommend using this in business English, where an alternative such as 'provide' or 'supply' would be much more appropriate.

This is often followed by with to talk about the item that is to be provided.

Examples of usage....

I couldn't find any gym equipment anywhere but luckily my personal trainer was able to sort me out with some.
The IT department were able to sort my manager out with a new printer.
The mechanic sorted out a new car for my brother after he crashed his old one.

MEANING 5: To punish someone (idiomatic)

The final meaning that we are looking at in this post is to 'sort someone out', meaning to punish someone or stop someone who is causing you a problem. This is normally by using physical force but sometimes can be by shouting at them.

Again, the underlying idea of this meaning is to resolve a problem but this time it is a problem that another person has caused or is causing you. This usage is also very informal and like with the previous meanings, it should be avoided when in formal situations or in business English.

Example of usage....

His parents will sort him out when he gets home. INTENDED MEANING: His parents will punish him when he arrives home.


In British English it is also possible to use 'sort out' as a noun, in which case it is spelt sort-out, with a hyphen.

We normally 'have a sort-out' when we are looking through our possessions in order to decide what to keep and what to throw away. It is an alternative way to say "to have a spring clean" if you are familiar with that expression.

Example of usage....

I have too much stuff in my bedroom. I really must have a sort-out!

A mixed British & American flag


If you can memorise some of the sentences below and use them in a conversation, it will help your English to come across as more natural:

I need to sort out which [noun] I am taking on holiday with me.
[Pronoun] is sorting out the issue.
Do you think you can sort it out by [time]
We are trying to sort things / it out.
That cupboard is so full. It really needs sorting out.
We've managed to sort out the problem.
When I have a headache, paracetamol and fresh air really sort me out.
Can you do this while I sort this customer out.
I am going to have a sort-out at home this weekend.


Re-write the following sentences using 'to sort out'....

  1. Can you look through these clothes and see which ones don't fit you anymore.

  2. We are in the process of resolving the issue.

  3. I need to arrange a babysitter for Saturday evening.

  4. Do you think you could get hold of some Covid test kits for me as I can't find any anywhere.

  5. The headteacher will punish the school bully and make sure that he never bullies any other pupils again.

  6. We went through our kitchen cupboards last week and threw out all of the outdated items.



Make sure you that do not confuse 'sort out' with 'sought out', which is the past form of the phrasal verb 'to seek out'. The pronunciation of 'sought out' is exactly the same as 'sort out', so it is good to be aware that both of these exist. It is worth remembering that both past forms of sort out are sorted out, so if you do hear 'sought out' in a past context, you can be fairly sure it is the past of 'seek out'.


EXERCISE ANSWERS (other variations may be possible)

  1. Can you look through clothes and sort out which ones don't fit you anymore.

  2. We are in the process of sorting the issue out.

  3. I need to sort out a babysitter for Saturday evening.

  4. Do you think you sort me out some Covid test kits as I can't find any anywhere.

  5. The headteacher will sort the school bully out and make sure that he never bullies any other pupils again.

  6. We had a sort-out of our kitchen cupboards last week and threw out all of the outdated items.


That brings us to the end of today's post. As you have hopefully seen, there is a general theme of organising things and resolving problems across all of the meanings of 'to sort out'.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read the post. I hope it has helped you a little bit further on your English learning journey.

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

Also, please leave your comments, questions, suggestions or your own examples of 'to sort out' below. I absolutely love reading them. See you next time!

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