Sit vs. Set

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Like many of our shortest English words, sit and set have lengthy entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Some of the definitions overlap. Some are interchangeable.

The most common uses of sit and set are similar to those of lay and lie. “To sit” is to be seated. “To set” is to place something somewhere. In these contexts, sit is intransitive and set takes an object.

Mixing up sit and set is not as common as mixing up lay and lie because the principal parts of sit and set are completely different:

sit, sat, (have) sat, sitting
set, set, (have) set, setting

However, because sit and set have so many additional uses, efforts to state a hard and fast rule as to when to use one and when the other are futile. That fact doesn’t stop people from trying. I read a comment asserting that “animate objects sit, whereas inanimate objects set, and that’s that!”

If “that were that,” the following statements would represent standard usage, but they don’t.

The flowers were setting on the table and the men’s tuxes were draped over chairs.

We were surprised by the beautiful gift-wrapped package setting on our bed.

Both “flowers” and “package” are inanimate objects, but sitting is the verb called for in both statements.

The meanings of sit listed in the OED include this one:

 a. Of things: To have place or location; to be situated. Ex. There were a dozen eggs still sitting on the front porch and the dustbin sat at the back of the house where the binmen had left it.

The flowers were sitting on the table and the package was sitting on the bed.

The expressions “to sit well” and “to set well” have differing meanings.

A certain plan may not sit well with voters. Here, “to sit well” means something like “to please” or “be agreeable to.”

A jacket may be said to set well on the shoulders. The OED definition for this sense of to set is,

To have a certain set or hang; to sit (well or ill, tightly or loosely, etc.).

In texts written about clothing, you will also see “to sit well” used in the same sense:

Just because you can squeeze yourself into a garment doesn’t mean it sits well.
Trousers with a wider waistband sit well.

When speaking of clothing, “to set well” and “to sit well” seem to be interchangeable.

In the matter of liking or not liking legislation, “to sit well” or “not to sit well” is the way to go.

In speaking of an object that has been placed somewhere, the choice is “sitting.”

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18 thoughts on “Sit vs. Set”

  1. The first time I encountered the British use “was sat” and similar, I was so confused. It took a couple of exposures for me to understand that this was a legitimate construction in British English.

    Examples: “The boy was sat on a rock by the harbour when the ship docked.” “I waited all night at the station, sat on the platform in my thin jacket.”

    If anyone could tell me whether this use of “sat” instead of “sitting” is a specific regionalism, I’d be forever grateful. 🙂

    Also, whoo, Maddox is back. Where’ve you been?! I’ve missed your articles.

  2. Thanks for a great site. It baffles me how you crank out excellent posts every day.

    From Abraham Vergheses’ Cutting for Stone: “How about ‘alien’? I mean it as a compliment. I say ‘alien.’…”

    My question involves two question marks, the position of the one above and the one for my questions below.

    Should it be, “How about ‘alien?’…I say ‘alien.’…”? Here, the speaker’s question mark is within the embedded quote, where I think it belongs, and my question mark is after the whole quote.

    Or, should it be, “How about ‘alien’?…I say ‘alien.’…”? Here, the speaker’s question mark is after the embedded quote, where Verghese or his editor placed it and mine is, again, after the whole quote.

    Or, finally—and thankfully for you, I’m sure—can the speaker’s question mark, wherever it is placed, serve as mine as well? I think not, but, to me, neither “How about ‘alien’??…” nor “How about ‘alien?’?…” is correct.

    Thank you.

  3. When I lived in Ashe County, NC, I was amused by the widespread ignorance involving “sit” vs. “set” among the women who advertised that they would “set with the elderly” in the local papers. Of course, the educational level of that rural county is not very high, yet that usage was so widespread as to make you wonder. I haven’t found that particular mis-usage to be the case here in Washington/Smyth counties, VA, although here people tend to say “ideals” instead of “ideas.” Regional differences in English mis-usage are interesting to say the least. The local schools don’t seem able to overcome such entrenched styles of speech.

  4. @Eddy Tor–I just phoned a London friend and asked about your “was sat” question. She’s old school, educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College in her youth. She says she hears this usage a lot, but that “educated speakers avoid it.”
    Btw, thanks for the enthusiastic welcome back. Good to be back.

    @Ed Good–I’m suitably mortified. I’ll ask Daniel to correct it. Thanks.

    @Danny–And then there’s the friendly “Come on in and set a spell!”

    @Alice–Language is an extremely personal thing. I think we all feel more comfortable, more ourselves with one type of speech rather than another. I love regional dialect.My favorite new commercial is the Dish ad with the guys using an iPad. I love hearing them talk. That being said, I feel strongly that education should produce citizens who are fluent in a standard form of English and know when to use it.

  5. In your third paragraph, you mentioned “principle parts.” I assume that you’re referring to the “principal parts” of a verb. Shouldn’t the word be “principal,” not “principle”?

  6. The misuse of “set” for “sit” is a rather typical Americanism that I have never heard outside of the States. I cannot remember hearing the English (surely not “British”) “was sat” and presume it is a dialectic phenomenon.

  7. I feel strongly that education should produce citizens who are fluent in a standard form of English and know when to use it.
    Holeheartily agree, LOL. I think we need to be careful to distinguish regionalisms and dialect from flat-out wrong usage. “Was sat”, and even, “set yourself down” could well be dialectical. But saying you would “set with the elderly” is just wrong– even if it is common among a certain group or in a certain place, set and sit are still separate words with distinct meanings and “setting” with the elderly makes no sense. What you are erroneously calling “setting” is, in fact, “sitting”. OTOH, “set yourself down” or “was sat” are just somewhat strange constructions to “standard” ears.

    whoo, Maddox is back. Where’ve you been?! I’ve missed your articles. Xrta in agreeance with that!

    While we’re on dialect, what about satten? Not satin, like the cloth, but as in, “I had just satten down?” Better, “I had just satten down on a folding chair I had boughten at the store, and had (fortunately) broughten with me!” Where I’m from, no one’d batten an eye at that!

  8. Miles,
    Ed Good beat you to it. The principle/principal fault has been corrected.
    Mea culpa. I do know better, Scout’s honor.

  9. The word “set” is also an invaluable noun, e.g. “the set of all positive integers”, and it is an adjective, too, e.g. “That is a set piece of music.” Part of my point is that I have read that in the big, unabridged dictionaries, the word “set” has a longer set of definitions than does any other word. I have read this in respectable references – and you can look it up youself if you have any doubts.

  10. Now we come to the song for the TV series THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES in the United States.
    That song contains the line “Sat a spell. Take your shoes off.”
    I grew up down South, but people didn’t talk like that in my house. My Mother was an English teacher, and she would not put up with that.

    I though that the singer was saying “Satis Belle, take your shoes off,” like “Satis Belle” was the name of some Hillbilly woman.
    After all, they had Grannie and Ellie Mae, can Cousin Jethro, so maybe one of their cousins was a woman named “Satis Belle”.

    Later on in my life, I met a woman from the mountains of East Tennessee whose real name is “Anna Belle”, spelled just like this.

  11. Oh, that line from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES song might have been
    “Set a spell. Take your shoes off.” I might have made a mistake.

    Oh, Maeve, that’s fantastic: “Sallie Belle” was your grandmother’s name.

    We could even twist THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES song into
    “Salliebelle, take your shoes off.”


  12. Thanks for this post.
    Perhaps you could address the use of “sitted” and “seated” – I often get confused between the two, e.g. He was sitted?seated? on the couch when she walked into the living room.
    Which is which?

    Thanks very much.

  13. I agree: “sitted” is not an option. “Sitted” is not a word in English,
    and as far as I know, it isn’t even in lowlevel slang.
    “To sit” is an irregular verb, and its principal parts are
    sit (present tense)
    sat (past tense)
    sat (past participle)
    All present participles in English are regular, and the present participle of “to sit” is “sitting”.

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