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According to the dictionary definitions the phrasal verb figure out and the verb grasp can indicate very similar meanings and it strikes me that one can use them interchangeably. This is why I came to this question that how shall one distinguish them in a manner that he/she could use each one in a more appropriate case?!

Please have a look on the dictionary examples bellow:

  • Could you help me figure out this problem?
  • It takes most people some time to figure out new software.
  • The detective couldn't figure out the death reason!
  • He couldn't figure out anything about them.
  • I've read this book twice, but still I don't grasp it.
  • I couldn't grasp what he was trying to say.

As far as I am concerned, in all cases above, these two verbs can be replaced freely in the manner that both sentences convey an identical message to the reader! Am I right? If so, then is it a matter of personal preference when to use them or there is something that I am missing it?

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In most cases, I'd agree. Though take the first sentence, to "figure out" a problem. To me, this implies that you are wanting help to solve the problem.

If instead you said you were trying to "grasp" the problem, it sounds more like you are trying to understand the problem, let alone solve it.

Also, I wouldn't usually expect to hear someone request help to "grasp" something directly. This sounds natural:

Can you help me figure out this problem?

This does not:

Can you help me grasp this problem?

An alternative that does:

I'm trying to grasp this problem. Can you help?

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    Yeah - I'd say Can you help me grasp this problem? might imply something along the lines of Can you explain to me why this is a problem in the first place? Whereas Can you help me figure out this problem implies that you know perfectly well it's a problem - you just want help solving it. – FumbleFingers Apr 9 at 16:10
  • @FumbleFingers Absolutely; well put! – Dan Apr 9 at 21:43
  • In order to make it more clear and based on your statements, I couldn't "figure out" what he was trying to say should imply: (I couldn't understand why he was trying to say) while I couldn't "grasp" what he was trying to say means (I couldn't understand what he said). Right? – A-friend Apr 10 at 7:51
  • Or in my other example I've read this book twice, but still I don't.......it we cannot use "figure out" while the verb "grasp" works perfectly here in the manner that if we say: I've read this book twice, but still I don't "figure it out" means (I don't understand why or how it has been written, whereas if we say: I've read this book twice, but still I don't grasp it it means: "I cannot understand the book because of complexity. Right? – A-friend Apr 10 at 8:05
  • But in the sentence: Can you ........ what he's trying to say both of these verbs can be used freely and perfectly without any change in meaning! Right? – A-friend Apr 10 at 9:46
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"Grasp" and "figure out" do have very similar meanings, and can very often be used interchangeably:

It takes a long time to "grasp"/"figure out" the complex social rules in Island society.

He never could seem to "grasp"/"figure out" trigonometry.

Both pairs mean the same thing.

But there is a slight difference between the two expressions, and in some situations it causes one of them to be more appropriate than the other. "Grasp" is usually used when you are talking about comprehending fully something that you are aware of, and "figure out" emphasizes the the active thought process of originating new concepts in your mind:

"I finally figured out the answer to the puzzle." Means that, based on the information you were given, you arrived at the answer, your original idea.

"I finally grasped the answer to the puzzle." sounds more like someone told you the answer, and after much thought, you were able to understand it.

"He often couldn't grasp how powerful he really was." means he couldn't fully understand the reality of his power.

You probably wouldn't say, "He often couldn't figure out how powerful he really was." because that sounds like he is completely ignorant of his great power. At any rate, ... those two sentences do have different implications.

So they're close and often interchangeable, but not identical.

More examples:

"The detective figured out who the killer was."

Not "The detective grasped who the killer was."

"When our home burned down, it took us a full year to really grasp it."

Not "When our home burned down, it took us a full year to really figure it out."

  • Thank you Lorel; but could you please let me know of I am following you! Based on your and others' posts I guess in your first examples: It takes a long time to "grasp"/"figure out" the complex social rules in Island society. And He never could seem to "grasp"/"figure out" trigonometry., the verb grasp works more appropriately although they are interchangeable; do you approve it? – A-friend Apr 10 at 7:30
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    Just because I listed "grasped" first in those first 2 sentences, I didn't mean to imply that "grasp" was better than "figure out" in those 2 cases. To my ears they are equally appropriate there, and in many, even most, other situations. Sometimes, though, it does make a difference that "grasp" emphasizes the passive comprehension of an existing concept, but "figure out" implies creative mental activity. – Lorel C. Apr 10 at 15:17
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Grasp, is a verb meaning to

seize and hold

synonyms include: grip, clutch, clasp, hold, clench, lay hold of... etc

Therefore, logically, I describe it this way.

Grasp, is used more to describe the physical act, that of the hand. Human or non human, with or without disposable thumb, for example: The Australopithecus afarensis grasped hold, squeezing ever so tightly, the neck of the much smaller chimpanzee, choking it, no, not til death, but just long enough, for the dumb ape to figure out, that he was a lower animal, in the hierarchy of the great apes.

Next! We have a combination or two words...

Figure:

The word "Figure" means simply, to calculate or to work out somethings value. Whether it be in knowledge or number.

Out:

The word "out" in this context, is used to denote the fact that something here, and now is revealed or made public.

Thus we have the two words amalgamated into the ingenious phrase:

Figure out...

This short phrase, should only be used, in terms where one is illuminated consciously, within their psyche or self, having procured certain knowledge and understanding from a perceptual standpoint.

Thus, the two in question, "grasp" and "figure out" , are to be used, not as if equivalent. But as being perfect for two very different situations.

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