The Many Uses of “Set”

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The OED has nine entries for the ubiquitous word set: an acronym, two nouns, two adjectives, two verbs, an obsolete conjunction, and the combining form that appears in such words as setback.

Considering how many ways the word is used, it’s surprising that set isn’t misused more often.

Until recently, I’d been aware of only one common misuse, that of mixing up the transitive verb set with the intransitive verb sit.

Then, the other day, I found two examples of an entirely new misuse on—of all places—the Reader’s Digest website. Both appear in a list of books that have been banned in previous decades:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Published in 1984, Milan Kundera’s philosophical novel concerns the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and sets amid artists caught up in the events of the time period.

Last Exit to Brooklyn
First published in 1964, Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel sets in a Brooklyn neighborhood and delves into the lives of the characters who live there.

Novels do not “set” places. Novels are “set in” places.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is set amid artists caught up in the events of the time period.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is set in a Brooklyn neighborhood.

In present usage, set can function as noun, verb, or adjective. The versatility comes from the fact that it derives from more than one word.

Set as noun
Old English had a noun, set, which could mean the place where the sun sets, or a place where people remain (like a camp) or a place to keep animals (like a cow shed).

Another noun, sette, borrowed from Old French, came to mean “number set together” which gives us such phrases as “a set of china” or “three sets of fifteen sit-ups.”

Set as verb
Old English had a verb, settan, from which the various meanings relating to movement or position arise.

Set as adjective
The adjective comes from the verb (past participle).We speak of a “set book” and a “set time.”

Idioms with set
An extraordinary number of expressions exist with set. Here are a few, with their meanings.

to set free
to release something or someone from captivity

The stingray was duly set free and the next thing on the line was a small shark.

set fire to
to alight something to make it burn

The candidates ran for their lives, and mobs set fire to the surrounding houses.

Note: Until recently, “set fire to” was the usual expression. Now, many speakers and writers seem to prefer “light something on fire.”

set aside
To dismiss from one’s mind, abandon the consideration of.

The wife of an attorney said that, despite that belief, she could set aside her opinion and consider the evidence, and she was not eliminated.

He then proceeded to conclude that a national court must have the power to provisionally set aside a national law which conflicts with Community law.


To separate for a special purpose; to devote to some use.

So far, the Treasury set aside 225 million pounds to cover the cost of defaults.

When cool enough to handle, scoop the pumpkin flesh from the skin and set aside.

set one’s cap at
to seek to attract a man with the goal of marriage

This dated and sexist expression is still around in novel blurbs and reviews.

Lady Thea knows what she wants in life. Desiring to stay with her widowed father, she’s set her cap on a local farmer’s son.

Reader Challenge
For the fun of it, pay attention the next time you browse your favorite news source and look for the use of set with its various meanings. Here are a few headlines from the New York Times:

A Set Designer Sets Up Shop
set (noun): the setting, stage furniture, etc., used on stage in a theatre.
set up (phrasal verb): to make ready for use

No Auctions Set for This Week
set (verb): scheduled

A Backdrop Artist Sets the Scene for the Fashionable Set
sets the scene: create conditions
fashionable set: fashionable group of people

The Places Are Set, but Not for All
to set a place: prepare a place at the table for a guest

Not everyone is welcome to attend an upcoming meeting.

Volume Set to Fortissimo
set to (adjectival phrase): positioned at a certain place on a mechanical control

These last two examples are word plays on more familiar phrases:

Ready, Set, Embargo
The usual collocation is “Ready, Set, Go!” These are instructions given at the beginning of a race.

Disquiet on the Set
The usual expression is “Quiet on the Set!” This is the command shouted on a movie set before the cameras and audio equipment are set in motion.

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