A playful memory trick to remember the difference between “sit” and “set.”
When I did a show about "lay" versus "lie" a few months ago, listeners wrote in asking me to do a follow up show on “sit” versus “set” because the problem with “sit” and “set” is similar to the problem with “lay” and “lie”—so here it is!
Like “lay,” the verb “set” requires an object. You set something, the object, down. For example, I can set a book on the desk. Or if you want to get more abstract, you can set a date for an event. There is some object that receives the action of the verb. In my examples, it is a book and a date. On the other hand, like “lie,” “sit” doesn't require a direct object; it's something you do. I “sit” on the couch.
Verbs, such as “set,” which require an object are called “transitive verbs,” and verbs, such as “sit,” which don't require an object are called “intransitive verbs.” The way I remember the difference is to think of transitive verbs as transferring their action to an object.
'Sit' Versus 'Set'
I also have a good memory trick to help you remember the difference between “sit” and “set”: When you're training a dog, you tell her to sit. My first dog's name was Dude, and she was a girl, so we would tell her, “Sit, Dude. Sit.” And she would plop her little bottom down. She was a good dog. She was a bull mastiff, so actually her bottom wasn't that little.
So get that image in your mind of a big bull mastiff responding to the command “Sit.” That is how you use “sit”—for the action of sitting.
“Set,” on the other hand, requires an object. Sometimes I would move Dude’s leash and set it somewhere, but she would still think we were going for a walk. I know she saw me set it down, but that leash had moved, and she was always full of hope. In those examples, the leash and the word “it” were the objects. I set the leash on the table, and she saw me set it down.
'Set' as a Collection
'Set' can also be a noun that describes a collection of things that somehow belong together, such as a set of figurines, a set of dishes, or a set of golf clubs, but people are rarely confused about this use.
Quick and Dirty Tip: The Verbs
The Quick and Dirty Tip is to remember that a dog (or person) sits, and you set down things—objects—like leashes.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”
'Sit' Versus 'Set' Quiz
1. Please [sit/set] the bag of confetti on my desk.
2. Are you going to [sit/set] there all day?
3. Squiggly bought a [sit/set] of dishes decorated with candy pictures.
4. Aardvark likes to [sit/set] in the front row.
5. The trophy proudly [sits/sets] on the shelf.
Answers are on the next page.