I've come across the article in which the collocation 'sort out with' is used.

The source: http://newyorkcorkreport.com/blog/2014/10/17/the-spirits-of-volunteerism/

Is this an issue that should be left to the vineyards and wineries to sort out with the labor boards, or is this something that individual supporters of those wineries should be taking up with their legislators?

In this regard, I have a question about this phrase, i.e. in which situations we can say 'to sort out with'. As far as I understand, if we have a dispute with someone over some issues, we want to sort these issues out with this person or, say, a regulating body. When we cause somebody any difficulties, we endeavor to sort these difficulties out with these people. Does it sound idiomatic when I use the words difficulties, issues, problems together with 'sort out'.

Can we use the preposition 'with' in relation to an inanimate noun?

I have to sort this problem out with the fraud involving my credit card.


2 Answers 2


In contexts like these with has two unrelated uses.

  • We use a with phrase after verbs like talk, discuss, argue, talk over, take up, sort out to designate the other people involved in the activity: the people we are addressing. The with phrase modifies the predicate—the verb and its complements—and ordinarily comes after the predicate is 'finished',

    ...an issue ... to sort out with the labor boards
    ...an issue ... to take up with their legislators
    ...a problem ... to discuss with my boss

  • We also use a with phrase with nouns like problem, issue, difficulty to designate the location of the problem: where the problem arises. The with phrase modifies the noun and ordinarily comes immediately after it.

    a problem with fraud ...
    a difficulty with English idiom ...
    an issue with his attitude ...

Both of these uses are idiomatic. But (as I suspect you have realized) a problem may arise when your utterance involves both a noun and a verb which may each take a with phrase. There are two sorts of problem here:

  • The first is ambiguity:

    We need to discuss this problem with the labour board.

    Is the labour board the source of your problem or the agency you want to discuss it with?

    In conversation the ambiguity will usually not arise: the context and the situation will make it clear to your hearer which you mean, and any misunderstanding will eventually emerge in the conversation and can be explained. But in writing you have to deal with the fundamental rule that “Anything which can be misunderstood will be”; since you have no opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding you must take particular care to say exactly what you mean.

    I’ll address some rewriting strategies shortly; but one that jumps forward in your example can be addressed here. With some ‘phrasal verbs’—sort out is one of them—the second element is separable—it can be placed either before or after the Direct Object. However, it should not be placed after a ‘heavy’ (many-word) DO, and it should not interrupt a DO. In your example the with phrase modifies this problem and should not be separated from it. Putting out after this problem leads the reader to believe that this problem is the entire DO, so the with phrase must be a modifier on the predicate: the person with whom you will sort out the problem. That is obviously absurd in this context, so there’s no real harm done; but out really should come before this problem:

    I have to sort out this problem with the fraud involving my credit card.

    That ‘ties’ the with phrase to the problem and makes misunderstanding much less likely.

  • The second problem is horror aequi: our strong dislike for using the same construction twice in a row with different significance:

    We need to discuss this problem with the labour board with our lawyers.

    Here there’s no permanent ambiguity, even in writing: when readers get to the end of the sentence they will apply the ‘rule’ that the first with phrase modifies the NP labour board which immediately precedes it, so the second with phrase modifies the predicate-as-a-whole.

    But the sentence is likely cause a brief ‘glitch’ in interpretation—after all, it is not unreasonable for readers to suppose, when they encounter with the labour board, that you feel a need to discuss your problem with the people who are causing it. And then you add a second with phrase with a different meaning, and that makes readers re-calibrate their interpretation of what the with signals—that’s probably why we dislike these doublings. So by the end of the sentence your readers may feel a vague sense that you have made your sentence unnecessarily difficult to follow.

    In conversation this is not a severe problem: you have all the resources of intonation and phrasing to make your meaning clear, and can speak your sentence something like this:

    We need to discuss this  problem-with-the-labour-board   with our lawyers.

    But you can’t do that in writing. You really need to rewrite. You have a lot of options. For instance, very old-fashioned writers will flip the Direct Object and its modifying with phrase to the end:

    We need to discuss with our lawyers this problem with the labour board.

    There’s enough separation between the with phrases here to overcome horror aequi. But the separation between the verb and its Direct Object is unnatural and ‘literary’; in modern prose this should be avoided. Another approach would be to separate the two with phrases through an ‘information packaging’ strategy like passivization or extraposition:

    This problem with the labour board needs to be discussed with our lawyers.
    This problem with the labour board, we need to discuss it with our lawyers.

    An even better solution is provided in TRomano’s answer: recast one of the with phrases.

    We need to discuss this labour board problem with our lawyers.

Well, you can—I just did—but that’s going to make your page look very odd, and will be even more annoying than horror aequi.


I have to sort this problem out with the fraud involving my credit card.

That is not quite idiomatic.

When used with the collocation "sort a problem out" the prepositional phrase governed by with typically refers either to the thing that is having the problem or the entity with whom one is going to sort the problem out.

When the prepositional phrase refers to the thing having the problem, "with" means "involving", so when you use "involving" as well as "with", it's pleonastic.

The preposition "with" here expects an object-phrase like this:

with the water-heater

with my credit card

with the manufacturer

with the store that sold me the widget.

with the police

with my in-laws

with my partners

These are all idiomatic:

I have to sort this problem out with my credit card.
I have to sort out this problem with my credit card.
I have to sort out this fraud problem with my credit card.
I have to sort out this credit card fraud with the bank.
I have to sort out with the bank a problem with my credit card involving fraudulent use.

  • 1
    +0.9 But I can't go along with your characterization of involving as 'pleonastic': the problem is with fraud and the fraud involves the credit card, rather than, say, a peculating teller. It is however unnecessarily verbose; recasting the whole as credit card fraud is clearly much better. Dec 20, 2014 at 14:27
  • 1
    I wouldn't argue too strenuously to support my position, but to my mind the sentence (involving a collocation 'to sort out a problem with ...') is pleonastic in several ways (rather than simply wordy). When it hits the word "fraud": "I must sort this problem out with the fraud involving my credit card". The word fraud should have appeared in the slot occupied by "problem* and then the with-clause would specify the interlocutor: *I must sort this fraud out with the bank." Since "problem" occupies that slot, the expectation is that the with-clause will identify the problem realm...
    – TimR
    Dec 20, 2014 at 14:58
  • ...(i.e. with my credit card) or the interlocutor (with the bank). That is, the with-clause won't offer a synonym for "problem".
    – TimR
    Dec 20, 2014 at 14:58
  • Yeah, the problem (our problem) is that the problem could be with any of those: the fraud, the credit card, or the bank. You can only sort it out with the bank, so that's where you want to leave with ... unless (this just occurred to me) you were going to sort out using your third-party credit card, e.g. to pay off the bank; and as long as we're being far-fetched, perhaps you would yourself be using your card fraudulently! But your credit-card fraud disambiguates nicely. Dec 20, 2014 at 17:04

You must log in to answer this question.