With spring in early bloom, it may seem an appropriate time to invite a friend to “stop by and set a spell.” Our friend will know what we mean: come by the house, kick back on the screened-in porch and enjoy a few sips of sweetened tea. But along with good will, we would be spreading syntactic sacrilege.
The verb “to set” has a variety of meanings, including to place (as in “to set down”), to establish (“to set a goal”), to become gelatinous (“to set some Jell-O”). It does not mean “to sit.”
Here’s the difference between “sit” and “set”: Set is a transitive verb, meaning that it requires an object. You set something down; that something is the object. If someone said to you, “Set your big behind on that chair,” they would be rude, but grammatically correct. The person would be asking you to set an object – here, it’s your plump posterior – on the chair.
“Sit,” on the other hand, is an intransitive verb, and it doesn’t require an object. You simply sit on the chair. In this regard, “I sit” is a full sentence, whereas “I set” is not – unless, of course, you are in the process of becoming gelatinous.
Neil Chethik, aka the Grammar Gourmet, is executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning (www.carnegiecenterlex.org) and author of “FatherLoss” and “VoiceMale.” The Carnegie Center offers writing classes and seminars for businesses and individuals. Contact Chethik at email@example.com or 859-254-4175.