8

Is there any difference between straighten out and sort out? I already know what they mean, so I'm interested in nuances.

I'm going to give a couple of examples, let me know if any sounds unnatural, plain wrong, or why you'd pick one over the other.

  • I think I'll sort out / straighten out the fridge / the stuff on my desk

  • Have you straightened out / sorted out that reservation yet?

  • There were a couple of errors but John straightened / sorted them out

  • Someone's going to have to straighten/ sort out this mess, and I'm glad it won't be me.

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  • 3
    The first means "untangle", the second means "divide into categories". – Hot Licks Nov 12 '17 at 18:58
  • 1
    "straighten out" - fix / resolve. "sort out" - figure out. – rmaddy Nov 12 '17 at 23:04
15

In many contexts, idiomatic straighten out and sort out are equivalent and interchangeable.

But there's a potential distinction in, for example,...

I have to miss my regular "Girsl's Night Out" tomorrow because I've got to stay in and...

1: ...straighten out my husband's tax return.
2: ...sort out my husband's tax return.

...where to my mind the strong implication in #1 is that the husband has already tried to "deal with" his tax return himself, but has made a mess of it. There's no such implication with #2.


Another potential distinction for some speakers in some contexts is that to straighten someone out may be used to mean to enlighten them by explaining something (feasibly, by pointing out that their behaviour is unacceptable), whereas they might use to sort someone out to mean to physically attack them (often, because they've behaved unacceptably).

  • 1
    Even without the prior attempt distinction, straighten out can imply a worse existing state than sort out. – MooseBoys Nov 13 '17 at 0:13
5

Straightening out implies some kinks that need taking care of. The majority of the task has been attempted but there are some issues that need rectifying. Sorting out is used for a new activity.

Using the reservation example; your partner has asked you to book a table at a restaurant. A couple of days later they remind you

Hey Honey, have you sorted out that reservation yet?

The restaurant calls back to say they have confirmed your tables, this is a problem because you only want one. Realising this mistake, your partner then asks you to

straighten out that booking

2

To me, "Sort out" signifies a preset arrangement. "Straighten" seems more vague, e.g. to fix until it looks right at the present time.

1

To me, the difference lies in the condition things are in.

Straighten out suggests to that something is wrong. Probably something that needs fixing sooner rather than later.

Sort out on the other hand suggests more of a disarray. It might be a good idea to sort it out, but it's probably not an imminent concern.

Disclaimer: I'm not a native speaker but I speak english both in my private and professional life daily.

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