Please imagine there is a new designed tuna can with a particular cap opening design which requires a little thinking about the way you have to open it. Your friend gives you the can and asks you to open it. After a couple of minutes he returns to you and wants to ask you if you could open it. Which one of the following verbs works in my self-made sentence below? For me, they both mean the same:

Based on dictionary definitions, figure out works here, but in my opinion "grasp" should not sound weird to a native ear.

  • 2
    I prefer one. Grasp is more like "Why?" and figure out is more like "How?", which is more what you need here. Jan 26, 2017 at 11:33
  • grasp is a concept. figure out is a process.
    – user3169
    Jan 26, 2017 at 20:51

1 Answer 1


When we figure out something, we are actively trying to understand or solve a problem.

It takes most people some time to figure out how to use new software.

I couldn't figure out the solution to the last maths problem.

When we grasp something, the information or solution is already there, and the question becomes one of comprehension - can we understand this concept that already exists. For example:

The student shows a weak grasp of physics.

She felt the solution was within her grasp.

In your examples, 'Can you figure out how to open this?' seems far more fitting, because the people involved currently can't open the container, but they are trying to solve the problem of how to do so.

  • Accordingly in the sentence: "I’ve read this book twice and I still don’t fully figure out / grasp it.", the verb "grasp" would work far better @mike. Am I right? Did I get you correctly?
    – A-friend
    Jan 26, 2017 at 16:24
  • @A-friend As is, I would use "understand" in that example. But what is "it"? More context is needed to understand which word is best.
    – user3169
    Jan 26, 2017 at 20:58
  • @user3169 imagine you've read a philosophical book which contains lots of complicated logical theories of philosophy. It requires a vast knowledge in this field. You try to read the whole book two times to take something out of it, but it seem that you cannot understand it thoroughly or at all. In such case, which verb would work better: ""I’ve read this book twice and I still don’t fully figure out / grasp it."". I guess "grasp" should be a better choice here. DO you confirm it?
    – A-friend
    Jan 28, 2017 at 6:54
  • @A-friend Again, it has to be clear what "it" refers to. Your example could be "I’ve read this book twice and I still can’t fully figure out why it is so long." or "I’ve read this book twice and I still can’t fully grasp the concepts the author is describing." In your tuna example, it would be figure out because you are describing a process (the steps taken) to open the can. Without that information, the examples in your question would be unclear.
    – user3169
    Jan 28, 2017 at 18:19
  • @user3169 "it" refers to the whole book (conceptually). I thought it is clear to be understood. But this is a lingual gap indeed.
    – A-friend
    Jan 29, 2017 at 8:40

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