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The Phrasal Verb 'Set Out' Explained

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

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


A woman setting out of her house

Hello and welcome to my blog 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.


The theme of this post is 'set out', which is a phrasal verb that includes the word in English with the most different definitions, 'to set' (check it on Google if you don't believe me), along with the preposition 'out'. Unlike the verb 'to set', its phrasal verb offshoot 'set out' does not have a huge number of meanings, but the meanings that it does have are quite varied. So, without further ado, let's take a look at them....


SET OUT: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

5

Separable?

Yes

Past tense forms

Set out - Set out

British or American?

Both

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

 

THE BASICS

The letters A-G spelt out using different coloured plasticine

The phrasal verb 'set out' is formed of the verb 'to set', which, as I previously mentioned, is the word with the most definitions in the English language - according to the Oxford Dictionary the word 'set' can be interpreted in 464 different ways as a verb, a noun and an adjective! Don't worry too much though as I do not think that the average native English speaker would know half of those definitions! The definition of 'to set' that will be relevant for the phrasal verb meanings is 'to place, put or lay something in a specific position'.


The prepositional particle 'out' is one that you will certainly already know and also has many meanings in English (though far less than 'set'). I think that the meanings of 'out' that will be relevant for 'set out' are 'to move away from an inside space' and also 'to be visible', although both of these may need some imagination when we come to look at the different meanings of 'set out'.


Ok, so now we have covered that, let's check out the different meanings....

 

MEANING 1: To start a journey



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable?

No

Potential synonyms

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

The first meaning of 'set out' is to leave or depart somewhere in order to start a journey


I believe that this meaning originated from the definition of 'set' meaning to place or to put your foot outside, which, when you think about it, is exactly what you do when you start a journey.


For this meaning we often require either the additional prepositions 'on' or 'for' to add additional information. We use 'on' to link the type of journey or movement that we are starting such as journey, voyage or trip and we use 'for' to specify the destination at the end of our journey such as home, work, or the name of a town or city.


Examples of usage....

Captain Cook set out on a voyage of discovery over 250 years ago.
This morning we set out at 4.00am so that we could get to the top of the mountain in time to see the sunrise.
Unfortunately you've missed Roger, he set out for work about half an hour ago!
After a long, hard week working away, I am will be setting out for home in the morning.
 

MEANING 2: To start trying to do something


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

Separable?

No

Potential synonyms

To start, to start out, to embark

Our second meaning of 'set out' is similar to the first meaning as it also means to start something, but rather than a journey, we use it to to describe when we start trying to do something, which is usually a long-term endeavour.


In other words, this could be used to describe the start of a figurative journey, rather than a literal or a real one, e.g. to start training in a particular career.


As mentioned above, 'set out' in this sense is commonly used to describe the action of starting something new, however it can also be used to talk about a person's aims or intentions when they start this new activity or career.


For this, the additional preposition 'to' is required when specifying the thing that you are starting or the aim or objective that you had when setting out.


Examples of usage....

When I set out in this business, I had no idea how difficult or stressful it was going to be.
I wish someone had told me this when I first was setting out as a young architect.
John didn't set out to be a teacher but he ended up becoming one nonetheless.
He set out to change people's attitudes and he was very successful at doing so.

The word 'tips' spelt out using wooden blocks

EXTRA INFORMATION

The noun 'outset', meaning the start or beginning of something, is linked to this phrasal verb meaning and is in common use among English speakers, especially when looking back at the past and talking about things in hindsight. This is normally used with either the prepositions 'from' or 'at'.


Examples of context....

The project was doomed to fail from the outset. INTENDED MEANING: The project was certain to fail right from the beginning.
I knew at the outset of the match that it was going to be a really good game. INTENDED MEANING: I knew that the game would be good right at the start.
 

MEANING 3: To arrange

Various objects set out neatly on a surface

CEFR Language Level

B2 (Upper Intermediate)

Usage

Medium

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To arrange, to organise

The third meaning of 'set out' is to arrange something in an attractive or organised way. This can be used with both physical and non-physical objects, ranging from nouns as diverse as business documents to window displays in shops, in other words anything that can be organised for other people to view and understand.


When talking about documents, we use 'set out' all the time when we design or produce the document such as CVs (resumes for American English learners), letters, certificates and personal statements. In the case of CVs (resumes) people are usually free to set them out as they wish but with letters etc. there are normally conventions which must be followed and therefore we need to set them out accordingly.


Alternatively, if we set out physical objects such as window displays in shops, or tables for dinner, then we are referring to physically placing the objects in a way that is (hopefully) organised or attractive. It is also of course possible to set things out incorrectly in an unattractive manner, but generally that is not what people want to do I guess.


One last thing to mention here is that the past participle 'set out' (an annoying irregular one) is commonly used as an adjective to describe how well something is structured or organised.


Examples of usage....

The successful candidate for the job had set their CV out in a clear and concise way, which really impressed the hiring committee.
The teacher set out the classroom in such a way that all the students had a clear view of the whiteboard.
The checklist is really well set out. Everyone should be able to follow it easily.
 

MEANING 4: To present ideas coherently

A woman sitting on a sofa working on a laptop

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

​Usage

Medium

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To structure, to organise, to establish, to define

Meaning number four of 'set out' is linked quite closely to the third meaning that we have just covered as it means to present ideas, arguments and facts coherently. This is really just an evolution of the third meaning, as instead of organising something so it is visually clear, we are instead organising it so that it is conceptually clear and understood by someone.


Therefore, this meaning of 'set out' is often used when talking about academic or formal writing or discourse as it used to describe and evaluate how ideas, arguments and perspectives are structured and organised and ultimately how effective they are at conveying the intended message.


Again, like in the previous meaning, the past particle 'set out' is often used here.


Another way that 'set out' is commonly used in this way is when talking about rules, guidelines, procedures, protocols and regulations etc. 'Set out' is generally used here to describe when these are established and communicated to the people affected by them.


Examples of usage....

The politician clearly set out her justification for why she feels that a referendum is necessary in the newspaper article that she wrote last week.
The facts were set out in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the document.
The management set out some new rules and guidelines on health and safety for all employees following new legislation that the government had passed.
Without a well set out argument, you will never get the council to take notice of your plight.
 

MEANING 5: To plant

A woman and a young girl wearing hats setting out seeds

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To plant, to sow

This fifth and final meaning of 'set out' will probably only be useful for the green-fingered* among you as it means to plant and seeds and plants in the ground.


I would say that due to the niche area in which it is used, this usage is a rare one, especially since it is more common to use the verbs 'to plant' and 'to sow' instead. However, it is always good to be aware of it, if for nothing else to be able to impress your English-speaking friends and colleagues.


Examples of usage....

Try and ensure that the seedlings are set out on a cloudy day in moist soil.
These plants must be set out at least 50cm apart from each other.

*Green-fingered is an adjective used to describe people who enjoy gardening and who are good at growing plants.

 

Question marks in different coloured speech bubbles

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to set out'....

  1. What time did you start your journey this morning?

  2. I had no idea what I was doing when I started my career as a singer.

  3. Make sure that you structure your letter according to standard conventions.

  4. This CV is very poorly organised, I don't wish to see this candidate for an interview.

  5. The management team has established a new set of rules for home working.

  6. I tend to plant seeds in my garden in March ready for Spring.

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

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'PLAY UP' (other variations may be possible)

  1. I can't find my keys, I am sure I PUT them ON the table when I came home.

  2. PUT some clothes ON, we have visitors!

  3. The first thing I do when I get home from work is PUT ON on the television.

  4. The local Women's Institute is PUTTING ON a charity event next month.

  5. He is PUTTING ON that Scottish accent. He comes from London!

  6. I have PUT ON a lot of weight since I got married.

 

That is the end of today's 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 out' below. I really love reading them. See you next time! James

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