Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

A set-to over set to

with 10 comments

The microscopic universe

I spotted this on the Guardian online recently:

In an extract from his new book, Ian Sample asks whether we may be set to discover a ‘hidden universe’.

The phrase ‘set to discover’ reminded me that when I was working in a newsroom in 1876 the news editor banned all us hacks from using the expression ‘set to’. He was sick of seeing copy that repeatedly fell back on this device, for example:

  • The union is set to hold a ballot.
  • Shops and offices are set to close for the day.
  • Champion cyclist, Bill Smith, is set to smash his world record.

He also said the phrase was ‘meaningless’. While I sympathise with his jaded response to its overuse, I can’t agree with his assertion that it is ‘meaningless’, especially as ‘set’ has more definitions than any other in the English language (between 400 and 500, depending on which source you believe). It takes up three columns in my Oxford Dictionary of English.

One of these hundreds of definitions includes ‘ready, prepared, or likely to do something’ and the following example is given:

Water costs look set to increase.

So: hackneyed, yes. But meaningless? No.


By the way, don’t confuse ‘set to’ with the hyphenated ‘set-to’ which means a fight or an argument, for example:

We had a bit of a set-to after work.



Written by Wordwatch

12/07/2010 at 7:31 am

10 Responses

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  1. Were you really working in a newsroom in “1876”?

    Sandra Lee

    12/07/2010 at 8:45 am

    • Hi, Sandra — it could have been a year or two later. I remember Queen Victoria was on the throne at the time.


      12/07/2010 at 8:54 am

      • Well, if it was 1876, you must have reported (from afar, bien sûr) (and maybe 5 years later, by the time you heard about it) on General Custer’s spectacular defeat at Little Big Horn. It was by all accounts quite a ummmm…set-to.


        12/07/2010 at 12:03 pm

        • In fact, I was assigned to report on Alexander Graham Bell’s first successful telephone call. He said: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you..”

          He couldn’t come up with anything better than that? ‘One small phone call for a man: one giant phone call for mankind’, for example?? No imagination, some people.


          12/07/2010 at 12:12 pm

          • Tee hee! True, very unimaginative. If only AGB had been a teenage girl, history would have been blessed with a two hour call to Mr Watson. 🙂


            13/07/2010 at 3:07 pm

            • There’s a humorous book here somewhere. ‘Great Moments in History: What They Should Have Said’


              13/07/2010 at 4:14 pm

  2. Oh damn – beaten to it by Sandra.



    12/07/2010 at 9:45 am

    • Oh, sorry, Ron. The butler opened up early this morning. He just muttered something about early birds and catching worms (I think I’ve already mentioned that he’s getting ideas above his station). I told him to go polish his clichés in the pantry.


      12/07/2010 at 10:09 am

      • Well, then – I’m all set to go to the pub.

        Nope, not a lush – ME means that any social life (ha!), has to happen during the day, and pubs are pretty much all there is (if I ever go to bingo, you have my full permission to put a contract out on me).


        12/07/2010 at 12:22 pm

        • Sounds good — enjoy yourself. Avoid all set-tos.

          I’ll hold you to the bingo thing.


          12/07/2010 at 12:26 pm

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