By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated, November 11, 2013)
There is a lot of confusion regarding sit and set, but there is an easy way to determine which one is correct: sitting is something that people and animals do with their bodies (e.g., sitting down on the ground, sitting on a chair); setting is something people do with objects (e.g., setting something down on a table).
Sit means to be seated:
- He sits there now. They sit there now. (present)
- He sat there yesterday. They sat there yesterday. (past)
- He has sat there many times in the past. They have sat there many times in the past. (present perfect)
Set means to place something, which means that it requires an object. In the following sentences, the object is purse.
- She comes in and sets her purse on the coffee table. (present)
- She set her purse on the coffee table yesterday and it is still there. (past)
- She will set her purse on the coffee table later. (future)
- She has set her purse on the coffee table every day this week. (present perfect)
Set is the same when the object is plural:
- He comes in and sets his shopping bags on the table. They set their purchases on the table. (present)
- He set his shopping bags on the table yesterday. They set their purchases on the table. (past)
- He will set his shopping bags on the table later. They will set their purchases on the table later. (future)
- He has set his shopping bags on the table each day this week. They have set their purchases on the table each day this week. (present perfect)
Set is also used in a number of common expressions:
- They set a date. (They made a plan to do something on a certain day.)
- The sun sets in the west. (The sun goes down in the west.)
- He set the table earlier. (He put dishes, cutlery, and napkins on the table at each place setting to prepare for a meal.)
- Her inspirational speech set events in motion. (She caused something to start, made something happen.)
- The novel was set in Russia in the 1940s. (The action in the book took place in Russia during the 1940s; this expression is used for plays, books, movies, and television shows.)
Set can also indicate:
- The programming of electronics: He set his watch for 8:00 a.m. She set her camera to video mode.
- The hardening or solidifying of substances such as glue and concrete: The glue set quickly.
- Certain facial expressions: She set her jaw and assumed a look of grim determination.
- The writing of music to accompany words: His poem was set to music.
It is also possible to set (establish, create) limits, standards, precedents, records, and examples:
- He decided to set limits on the children’s TV watching and computer time.
- The school’s administrators wanted to set high standards for achievement.
- By purchasing a toy for the children after their visit to the doctor, she set a precedent; her children now expect to receive a toy each time they visit the doctor.
- He set a record for the most hot dogs eaten at one sitting.
- Julie always ate lots of vegetables to set a good example for her children.
- Ralph set a bad example for the children by starting a food fight at the restaurant.
- Fogarty, M., Grammar Girl. (2007). “Sit Versus Set.”
- O’Conner, P. T. (1996). Woe Is I, the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
- Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. (2013). “Set.” Oxford University Press. OALD8.OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com.
- University of Houston-Victoria. (2008). “Using Sit or Set.” UHV.edu.