Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"
Aubrey Carter
"3 Keys IELTS Certified Coach"

Phrasal verbs in English can be tricky!

In today’s episode Lindsay and Aubrey answer an insightful listener question.

You’ll learn all about the grammar of the phrasal verb ‘figure out.’

By the end of the episode, you’ll have figured out this native expression to deepen your connections in English.

Figure out

Lindsay asks Aubrey if she has had any problems she recently had to figure out.

Aubrey shares that she had to figure out with her husband how to replace their pool light.

They noticed their pool light was out and they wanted to be able to swim at night.

They got a quote for a contractor to replace it, but it was going to be very expensive.

So Aubrey and her husband decided to do it themselves.

It was difficult but they eventually figured out how to replace the pool lights.

Luckily, Aubrey’s husband is very handy and he got to figure out how to work everything out.

Today’s question

A listener sent in a question related to this conversation.

Today they answer the query regarding the phrasal verb ‘figure out.’

Here is the question:

Hi Lindsay. I hope all is well with you and your team. I can’t believe it’s been more than five years since we last met at the San Francisco Airport in December of 2017. The podcast has become even more amazing since then. Keep up the good work. I have a quick grammar question that I’d love to hear your team talk about on the podcast. In the statement “I figured out what all that noise coming from the basement (a) is (b) was.” This is because the verb from the main sentence, ‘figure’, is in its past tense. I think I’ve seen both. Am I correct or am I hallucinating? If people do use both then when to use ‘is’ and when to use ‘was’? I greatly appreciate it if your team could talk about this grammar rule. It’s widely used in daily conversations.


Figured out ‘is’ vs. ‘was’

This could be confusing grammar that Jing points out.

Today we’ll simplify it for you!

You can use the phrasal verb ‘figure out’ both in the present or past depending on your sentence.

The phrasal verb ‘figure out’ is extremely useful.

It can be used both in casual and more formal business conversations.

We’ll share the two different ways to use it properly.

#1: Figured out + verb in the present tense

When using this structure, it means that something has been figured out that is still happening.


I figured out what the noise in the basement is.
They figured out what the problem is.

In these examples, the speaker has found out what the noise or problem is and it still exists.

Even if you see ‘figured’ in the past tense, think about the meaning of the sentence.

This will help you know if the next verb should be in past or present.

It depends on whether what has been figured out is still happening or not.

#2: Figured out + verb in the past tense.

In this structure, it means that whatever has been figured out is no longer happening.


I figured out what the noise in the basement was.
They figured out what the problem was.

The context changes in these examples.

The problem or the noise is no longer happening after the speaker figured out what it was.

In the second sentence, the problem is already resolved.


Figured out can be replaced with a synonym.

  • discovered
  • realized

The same grammar rule applies if you use a synonym of ‘figure out.’

I discovered what the noise in the basement was.
I realized what the noise in the basement is.

Using in conversation

‘Figure out’ is a high-level phrasal verb.

You can use it in your daily conversation whether in a formal or informal setting.

It’s good to use in making deeper connections by sharing something about yourself.

You can use this to share what you recently learned or are working on.

‘Figure out’ is much less formal than other synonyms such as ‘discover’ or ‘analyze.’


Lindsay and Aubrey share a roleplay using the insights shared in today’s grammar lesson.

In this scenario, Lindsay and Aubrey are mechanics.

They are working on a car.

Aubrey: I figured out what the problem with the AC is.
Lindsay: Oh good! I think I figured out what the issue with the fan was too. I tightened it and it’s working great now.
Aubrey: Perfect! This was a really tough job. I think I figured out what my problem is. I don’t want to be an auto mechanic.


Using high level vocabulary in your daily conversations will make you sound more like a native English speaker.

Make sure you use the right tense so you are conveying the right message.

Take notes on what you’ve learned in today’s episode.

Practice it when you’re talking to friends or coworkers.

This will help you when sharing about what you recently figured out or learned to do.

What is another phrasal verb that confuses you?

Share it in the comments below.

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