Set things up, set them off, set them free

“Set” is one of the most important verbs in business English, but it’s also one of the most difficult for learners to use. By itself, it means something like “get something ready by telling it what to do.” So, when you set your alarm clock, you get it ready to wake you up, by telling it what time you want it to ring in the morning. Similarly, you can set your smartphone to play your favorite music when it rings, your computer to use a particular Internet connection, or your printer to print a certain number of pages. When you set these different devices, you are working with their “settings.”

You can also set things for other people, by telling them what you expect them to do. For example, if you’re the boss, you can set tasks and deadlines for members of your team, to tell them what they need to do and when. If you’re not the boss, you might have to set your co-workers a challenge instead, and hope that they feel the need to complete it!

So, “set” is a useful word by itself, but it becomes a lot more useful when it’s part of a phrasal verb (a verb with a preposition or an adverb that has a special meaning). The phrasal verb “set up,” for example, means “get something ready to start.” When you set up a meeting, you tell all the participants where to go and when. And when you set up a new company, you take a good idea and turn it into a fully functioning business.

“Set” often has a sense of starting a journey, whether literally or metaphorically. When you set out (or set off) on a journey, you literally leave home. But when you set out to build a successful business, you’re starting a metaphorical journey. Here, “set out to do” describes your purpose or target when you start. Unfortunately, we don’t always achieve what we set out to do!

“Setting” can also involve putting things in certain places, again literally or metaphorically. For example, you can literally set out your plans, by printing them and placing the documents on display for people to read. But you can also set out your ideas in a metaphorical sense, simply by explaining everything clearly. Similarly, if you know you’ll need a lot of money next year, you can literally set some money aside now, by placing it somewhere safe, so you won’t spend it on something else. But you can also metaphorically set aside money or time for a particular project, simply by deciding not to spend it on other things. And if a problem sets you back, it metaphorically moves you back to where you were before. That’s why a problem that reverses your recent progress is called a setback.

Finally, “set” appears in many idioms. If you can’t think of a great new idea for your business, perhaps you need to set your mind free. Later, when you’ve got your idea, you need to work hard to set it in motion. If you’re very lucky, and millions of customers set their hearts on buying your product, your business might just set the world on fire!

Note: Articles published here are done so without the learning materials and functionality provided on our native platform. To continue improving your business English with The Wall Street Journal, please register for your free 30 day trial and Learning Team Newsletter.

Originally published at