Q: I do ESL tutoring and I would like to be clear about “sit” vs. “set” and “rise” vs. “raise.” We sit at a table and rise from a chair. We set a table and raise flowers. Why does the sun rise in the east (as of its own volition), but it sets in the west?
A: When we speak of the sun’s rising and setting, we’re using “rise” in the sense of to ascend or mount up.
This meaning of “rise,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been in use since about 1200 in reference to heavenly bodies coming up above the horizon.
As for the sun’s setting, we’re using “set” here in the sense of to sink or descend. This meaning of “set” has been in use since about 1300 in reference to heavenly bodies going down below the horizon.
“Set” has had a great many meanings over the years, which accounts for some of the confusion with “sit.” In fact, people have been confused about “set” and ”sit” as far back as the early 1300s, according to the OED.
This is partly because of the close similarity of their past tenses and past participles, and partly because of the similarity in their meanings in some uses.
For example, one meaning of “set” is to cause someone to be seated or to sit (as in “to set the king on his throne” or “to set the child in his highchair”).
You don’t have to be an ESL student to find this confusing.
In “Mixed Doubles,” a section on confusing pairs in the new third edition of my grammar book Woe Is I, I explain the difference between “set” vs. “sit” and “raise” vs. “rise” this way:
“RAISE/RISE. To raise is to bring something up; there’s always a ‘something’ that’s being lifted. To rise is to get up. When they raise the flag, we all rise.”
“SET/SIT. To set is to place something; there’s always a ‘something’ that’s being placed. To sit is to be seated. Set the groceries on the counter and sit at the table.“