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The Phrasal Verb 'Set Off' Explained

Updated: Jan 21

An explanation of the different meanings of the English phrasal verb 'set off', with examples and exercises.


A brown leather bag on the floor in front of man with a passport in his hand

Hello and welcome to my website all about English phrasal verbs. Each week, I take a different phrasal verb and look at how it is used by native speakers, with a focus on the different meanings that it has and the expressions and idioms that it is used in.


'Set off' is a common English phrasal verb that is used by people in many different areas of modern life, ranging from holidaymakers to accountants and even fashion designers. In this post, I will take you through all of its different applications in English and tell you how you should use them, with lots of examples to help your understanding. So, without further ado, let's get started....


SET OFF: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

6

Separable?

Sometimes

Past tense forms

Set off / Set off

For more explanation of the terms in the table above, click here.

 

THE BASICS


The letters ABC written on a blackboard with books and chalk sticks in the foreground

Before we delve into the different meanings of 'set off', let's take a moment to consider the individual meanings of the words 'set' and 'off'.


It may surprise you to know that the word 'set' is the word with the highest number of meanings in the English language, with a total of 430 different meanings and senses! That is a crazy amount and I highly doubt that most English native speakers know them all and are able to use them. When used as a verb, 'set', unsurprisingly, has a large number of meanings, however the one that is most relevant for the purposes of the phrasal verb 'set off' is 'to cause something to be in a specified condition' e.g. "he set the house on fire". In this example sentence 'to set' is the causing action and the condition is 'on fire'.


The prepositional particle 'off', like most prepositions in English, has a wide variety of different meanings and uses. When used in phrasal verb constructions it can often provide ideas of separation, departure and finishing, among many others. One meaning of 'off' to note here is that when used as an adjective, it can describe someone that has is about to start, or has just started on a journey, for example if you hear "the horses are off", it means that the horses in a race have just started running. In another example, if someone says 'I'm off to work", it means that they are about to leave the house to go to work in the next minute.


Now that we have covered the basics, let's have a look at the different meanings of 'set off'...


 

MEANING 1: To begin a journey



CEFR English Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To set out, to depart, to leave, to head off, to embark

Separable?

No

Words commonly used with

Journey, trip, adventure

The first meaning of 'set off' that we will look at is 'to begin a journey', or alternatively 'to depart' or 'to leave'. This usage of 'set off' is a very common in spoken English and is slightly informal in register.


For this application of 'set off', we combine the sense of the verb to 'to set', meaning 'to cause something to be in a specified condition, with the adverbial meaning of the particle 'off', meaning 'to be moving away from a place'. Therefore, when we use 'set off' in this way, we are saying that we are going to move away from a place, or in other words depart or leave.


This usage is very similar to the phrasal verb 'set out' (link here) and perhaps slightly more commonly used.


Grammatically, this application of 'set off' is inseparable and does not take a direct object. 'Set off' is often followed by additional prepositions 'on' or 'for'; 'on' is used to specify the type of journey and 'for' is used to specify the destination.


Examples of usage....

What time are you setting off tomorrow morning?
I'm sorry, you've just missed John. He set off for work five minutes ago.
When I set off on this hike earlier this morning, it was freezing cold.
Look at the time! We'd better set off for the airport soon or we will be late for the flight.
 

MEANING 2: To activate something



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To trigger, to activate, to detonate

Separable?

Yes

Words commonly used with

Alarm, bomb, detector, sprinkler, gun, firework

The second meaning of 'set off' is 'to activate' something and is used specifically with certain nouns such as 'bomb' and 'alarm'.


Like with the previous examples, this application of 'set off' links back to the meaning of the verb 'to set' that is 'to cause something to be in a specified condition' and the specified condition this time is 'activation mode'. In simple terms, 'to set off' is to cause something to activate.


As I mentioned above, 'set off' is used with specific nouns, which are all generally devices or equipment that are inoperative for most of the time and need to be activated in some way in order to become operative. These typically include fire alarms, smoke alarms, burglar alarms, metal detectors, bombs and guns, all of which must be triggered or 'set off' in order to fulfil their function.


If you have read my post on the similar phrasal verb 'go off' (link here), you may remember that these are very similar in meaning. It is worth noting however that 'set off' is used when there is some kind of known intervention, often human, and in sentences the person who activates the alarm is the subject, whilst the activated device is the object.


On the other hand, we use 'go off' to describe when these devices are activated without human intervention or we do not know what caused the device to be activated. In 'go off' clauses therefore the activated device is the subject.


Examples of usage....

Someone set the fire alarm off in our building at 3am this morning, so we all had to get up and wait outside until the fire department had checked everything was ok.
Make sure you remove your belt when you go through security at the airport or you will set off the metal detector.
The hunter accidentally set off his gun whilst he was cleaning it, but luckily the bullet did not hit anything.
 

MEANING 3: To cause someone to react


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To trigger

Separable?

Yes

The third meaning of 'set off' is to cause someone to react in a certain manner, which is usually emotional in nature and lasts for a period of time.


This meaning is actually very similar to the previous meaning that we have just looked at but rather than a device, the thing that is being activated is a person's emotion or reaction. This application is most commonly used with crying, laughter or making someone angry.


For example, if you watch a sad movie that makes you cry, you can say that it '"sets you off crying". Alternatively, if someone makes you laugh uncontrollably, you can say that they "set you off laughing". As you can see from these examples, the gerund ('ing) form of the verb is normally used after 'set off', but this is not always necessary if the action is already clear from the context or situation.


In addition to laughing and crying, 'set off' in this sense can be used to describe a human action that is activated or triggered and continues for a period of time such as coughing, singing, sneezing or talking.


Grammatically, this application of 'set off' is separable. As this always refers to the actions or emotions of a person, we tend to mostly use this with indirect personal pronouns (me, him, her etc.) and these must always be placed between 'set' and 'off'.


Examples of usage....

Helen watches this movie all the time even though she knows that it will set her off crying at the end.
All of the smoke in the bar set me off coughing and I had to leave.
Don't set me off again! I've only just stopped laughing from last time.
Why did you have to bring that subject up?! You've set him off now, he won't stop talking about this for ages.
 

MEANING 4: To start a chain of events



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To spark off, to trigger, to bring about

Separable?

Yes

The fourth meaning of 'set off' is really just another sub-meaning of the ones that we have already covered. As per the previous two meanings, it also means 'to trigger' something and in this case it is an event or, perhaps more commonly, a series of events.


This usage is really all about the principle of cause and effect as if something makes an event or a chain of events happen, we can say that it "sets if off". It is likely that you will come across (link here) this particular application in the news and in current affairs in English.


Grammatically, this application of 'set off' is separable, with the triggered event serving as the direct object. I think in terms of usage however, we tend to place the direct object after the phrasal verb more often.


Examples of usage....

When the Prime Minister refused to authorise the new law, it set off a chain of events, which eventually led to his resignation.
The decision by the judge to release the murderer set off a large number of riots all over the country.
A discovery of a few old coins in the car park set off a series of events that culminated in a buried treasure being found underneath it.
 

MEANING 5: To embellish the appearance of something



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To go with

Separable

Yes

For this fifth meaning of 'set off', we are moving away from the 'triggering' sense of the last few usages as this one means 'to embellish the appearance of something'. In other words, 'to make something look more attractive or beautiful by adding decorative elements to it'. It is worth noting here that this embellishment is normally done by adding some form of contrasting colour or object.


When something 'sets something else off', it makes it more attractive or appealing to the eye and can even make the item or colour seem more evident or outstanding.


As you can probably imagine, this application of 'set off' is used a large amount in the worlds of interior design, art, fashion and the hair & beauty industry where making something look attractive to people is the prime objective.


Although I've written here that this usage of 'set off' is to make something appear more visually attractive, it can also be used with flavour in food, where one ingredient can be added to a dish that has a very different taste and yet complements the taste of the original dish.


Examples of usage...

The artist's decision to add a hint of purple to the picture was a very smart one as it sets the green off wonderfully.
That hat really sets off the colour of your hair, you should buy it!
The lace around the rim of the hat really sets if off.
It's amazing how just a small amount of cinnamon in this apple tart really sets off the flavour of the apples.
 

MEANING 6: To balance one thing against another



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To offset, to make up for

Separable?

Yes

The sixth and final meaning of 'set off' that we will cover in this post is 'to balance one thing against another, often so that the effect of the first thing is reduced or eliminated'.


To get an idea of this, you should imagine a weighing scale (like in the gif above), on one side of which is a heavy weight. In order to reduce the effects of this heavy weight (the imbalance), a weight must be added to the other side to either lessen or remove the imbalance. This principle is known as 'setting off one thing against another'.


While this of weighing scale is used less and less in the modern world, this application of 'set off' continues to be used in modern life, particularly when talking about money and finance. You may also be familiar with the verb 'offset', which is derived from this application of 'set off' and is probably now more widely used than its phrasal verb synonym.


Grammatically, this usage of 'set off' is separable, however it tends to be more frequently used inseparably. The additional preposition against is usually used.


Examples of usage....

Any future debts will be set off against the profits of the company.
If you rent your property out, the money that you spend on maintenance and repairs should be set off against your rental income.
 

Question marks in different coloured overlapping speech bubbles on a black background

TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE Re-write the following sentences using 'to set off'....


  1. The astronauts started their journey to the moon on 3rd January.

  2. One of the school pupils triggered the fire alarm as he wanted some time out from his lesson.

  3. Every time my Dad watches this movie, it makes him cry.

  4. The argument between the politicians triggered a chain of events that led to a new election.

  5. The blue paint and sofa make the room look really beautiful.

  6. The deposit payment will be allocated against the final invoice.


The answers will be available in next week's post.

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'LET DOWN' (Other variations may be possible)

  1. I am relying on you to get this right. Please don't LET me DOWN.

  2. Roger feels like he has LET his parents DOWN by not going to university.

  3. The caver was slowly LET DOWN into the cave by a rope.

  4. I love the car, however the only thing that LETS it DOWN is that it is yellow.

  5. My new pair of trousers didn't fit me, so my mother LET them DOWN for me.

  6. Your tyres are too full of air, you need to LET them DOWN a bit.


 

This brings us to the end of the post. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and I sincerely hope that it has helped you a little bit further on your English learning journey.


If you found the post useful, please like and share it on social media, so together we can help as many English learners as possible to understand and master these tricky phrasal verbs.


Also, please leave any comments, questions, suggestions or examples of 'set off' below. I really love reading them. If you want to receive new blog posts directly email every week, please sign up on the form below.

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