Sort; figure out. But also address in a more general sense; solve (as in a headline from the Daily Mirror: “Sort Out Those Sleep Demons–For Good!”). I just went to nytimes.com and was greeted with a banner advertisement (from Ameritrade) announcing, A LOT OF FACTORS IMPACT YOUR RETIREMENT. WE’LL HELP YOU SORT THEM OUT, which reminded me that I have been meaning to look into this phrasal verb.
Brits seem to have a fondness for many sorts of sort. There is Harry Potter’s sorting hat, of course; the noun roughly equivalent to type, as in a decent sort; and, notably, the qualifier sort of, which not only is preferred to the U.S. kind of but seem to be taken to in a more existential way, as a contingent and unenthusiastic attitude toward life. U2 has a song called “A Sort of Homecoming,” and one of Graham Greene’s memoirs is (brilliantly) titled A Sort of Life. In Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing, a pop-music-besotted character refers to once being taken to Covent Garden to hear “a sort of foreign musical with no dancing”–about as good a definition of opera as I have come across. (In fairness, I should also note that the very American William Carlos Williams has a poem called “A Sort of a Song.”)
I have the impression that sort of is getting some legs in the U.S., especially in academic circles. However, I am here today to talk about sort out. Neither Google Ngram nor Google Trends shows any great increase in American use, though Ngram suggests that in Britain, figure out is a not one-off Americanism, having overtaken sort out in about 1995 and maintaining a substantial lead. Even so, I am going to invoke blogger’s privilege and claim sort out as a not one-off Britishism.
Laura Hoptman, the curator of the exhibition, which runs until January 6th, has sorted out a quiet but potent development of the last decade by focussing on an international array of twenty-six young but established artists of many tendencies. (Peter Schejeldahl, The New Yorker, November 4, 2002)/Mobile phone carriers, banks, credit card issuers, payment networks and technology companies are all vying to control these wallets. But first, they need to sort out what role each will play and how each will get paid. (New York Times, March 23, 2011)