The Grammarphobia Blog

You’ll find out!

Q: When my advanced English students use “find out,” I tell them it’s a lazy colloquialism that should be replaced with verbs like “learn,” “perceive,” and “discover.” Your blog is required reading for my students, but the search function returns 58 instances where you use the term. Am I too strict, or are you lazy, also?

A: Well, we may be lazy, but you’re much too strict! The phrasal verb “find out” is perfectly respectable.

It’s been used in scholarly English since the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) dates it even earlier, from the 13th century.

When first recorded in writing, the OED says, “find out” meant “to come upon by searching or inquiry; to discover (what is hidden).” Oxford’s earliest recorded example comes from a book on logic, Thomas Wilson’s The Rule of Reason (1551).

In a reference to searching for gold, Wilson writes: “They … do searche narrowly … and … at length fynde out the mine.”

(A few years later, in The Arte of Rhetorique, Wilson uses the phrase “to finde out the trueth,” and refers to logic as “that arte, which by reason findeth out the trueth.”)

Around this same time, the OED says, the verb was used to mean “to discover by attention, scrutiny, study, etc.; to devise, invent; to unriddle, solve.” 

The dictionary’s first citation for this use of “find out” is from an English-Latin dictionary, Richard Huloet’s Abcedarium Anglo Latinum (1552): “Finde out by studye, excudo.”

The sense of the verb that’s most familiar today (“to make a discovery; to discover a fact, the truth, etc.”) emerged in the mid-19th century, according to OED citations. In this usage, “find out” is often followed by “about,” Oxford adds.

Here are a few of the OED’s citations for this sense of the phrasal verb:

1862: “ ‘I don’t like the pigs—I don’t know where they are.’ ‘Well, we must find out.’ ” (From George Macdonald’s novel David Elginbrod.)

1881: “ ‘Who might that one be?’ ‘I am thinking ye’ll have to find out for yourself.’ ” (From Charlotte Eliza L. Riddell’s novel The Senior Partner.)

1893: “ ‘He has found out about Mrs. Le Grice’s bill,’ said Lally to herself.” (From Mary Elizabeth Mann’s novel In Summer Shade.)

1894: “Perhaps death brings peace. I shall soon find out about that.” (From “The Umbrella-Mender,” a short story in Beatrice Harraden’s book In Varying Moods.)

So you can see that “find out” has a solid reputation. If a phrase has been used in educated English since before Shakespeare’s (maybe even Chaucer’s) time, you can be sure that it’s a legitimate usage.

And none of the dictionaries or usage guides we’ve checked label “find out” as a colloquialism or as anything other than standard English.

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