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Writing Tip: June 6, 2002

"Sit" and "Set"

The previous tip dealt with the distinction between lie and lay. We thought it would be helpful to follow it with a discussion of sit and set, another pair of potentially confusing verbs.

Which of these sentences use forms of the verbs "to sit" and "to set" correctly?

1. Yesterday Suki sat in her office all afternoon completing the annual report.
2. When she finished, she sat the report on her boss's desk.
3. Marcellos sits his books on the hall table every afternoon after school.
4. Before Mr. Jones left for the meeting, we set down with him and reviewed the agenda.

Only the first sentence is correct.

"To sit" is an intransitive verb. It describes an action undertaken by the grammatical subject of a clause, but it cannot take a direct object: the verb "to sit" does not express the kind of action that can be DONE TO anything. Just as we do with "to lie," think of "to sit" as meaning "to recline."

It is conjugated in this manner:

I SIT here every day. (She SITS here.)
I SAT here yesterday.
I WILL SIT here tomorrow.
I AM SITTING here right now.
I HAVE SAT here every day for years.

Notice that we never use the word set to describe the act of reclining.

"To set" is a transitive verb. It describes an action and needs a direct object because it describes the kind of action that is DONE TO something. That is, something or someone in the sentence has to be receiving the action expressed by the verb. Just as we do with "to lay," think of "to set" as meaning "to place," "to put."

It is conjugated in this manner:

I SET my book on the table every night before turning out the light. (She SETS her book on the table.)
I SET my book on the table last night.
I WILL SET my book on the table tonight.
I AM SETTING my book on the table right now.
I HAVE SET my book on the table every night for years.

Notice that we never use the words sit or sat to describe the act of putting or placing something or someone.

You will remember from the last tip that lay and lie are especially difficult because the past tense form of "to lie" is lay--the same word as the present tense form of "to lay." Fortunately, we have no such overlap with "to sit" and "to set."

Let's return to our opening sentences:

1. Yesterday Suki sat in her office all afternoon completing the annual report.

Sat is correct because we mean "to recline," and the past tense form of the verb "to sit" is sat.

2. When she finished, she sat the report on her boss's desk.

This sentence describes the act of putting or placing something--namely, the report. Because the verb takes a direct object (report), we should use the past tense form of the verb "to set," which is set.

CORRECTION: When she finished, she SET the report on her boss's desk.

3. Marcellos sits his books on the hall table every afternoon after school.

As in sentence 2, the verb in this sentence describes an act of putting or placing. The books are getting placed on the hall table. Thus, we should have used the present tense of the verb "to set."

CORRECTION: Marcellos SETS his books on the hall table every afternoon after school.

4. Before Mr. Jones left for the meeting, we set down with him and reviewed the agenda.

Here the verb set does not have a direct object; that is, nothing in the clause is getting put or placed. Instead, the verb describes the act of reclining by the subject of theclause, we.

CORRECTION: Before Mr. Jones left for the meeting, we SAT down with him and reviewed the agenda.

Here is a recap of the forms that go with each verb:

"to sit" = "to recline" (cannot have a direct object)
sit, sat, sitting, sat

"to set" = "to place" (must have a direct object)
set, set, setting, set

Keep in mind that when we talk about placing our guests in their chairs for, say, a dinner party, we are seating them, not setting them. "To seat" is also a transitive verb and will take a direct object. We conjugate it thus:

Today I SEATED my guests.
Yesterday I SEATED my guests.
I WILL SEAT my guests.
I AM SEATING my guests.
I HAVE SEATED my guests.

Remember, too, that the words we use when we conjugate "to sit," "to set," "to lay," and "to lie" can hold entirely different meanings when they are not functioning as main verbs with the definitions addressed in this tip and the previous one. For example, set, sitting, and setting can all be used as nouns--"I have new a set of silverware," for example. Likewise, the word lie can be a noun for an untruth, and when one fibs, one is lying--a definition of the verb "to lie" that certainly does not mean "to recline." In the previous tip and in this one, we are dealing specifically with the often-confusing forms of these two pairs of closely related transitive and intransitive verbs.

TEST YOURSELF

Can you spot errors in the use of the verbs "to sit" and "to set" in the following sentences?

1. Before the guests arrive, I plan to sit several bowls of chips around the room.
2. Florence forgot that she had sat her keys on the seat of her car.
3. Ahmed complained that several dirty coffee cups had been setting on the counter all week.
4. As each board member arrived, Herb sat him or her in one of the plush chairs around the conference table.

ANSWERS

1. Before the guests arrive, I plan to SET several bowls of chips around the room.
2. Florence forgot that she had SET her keys on the seat of her car.
3. Ahmed complained that several dirty coffee cups had been SITTING on the counter all week.
4. As each board member arrived, Herb SEATED him or her in one of the plush chairs around the conference table.

Copyright 2002 Get It Write

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