Don’t let a fear of phrasal verbs set in! Tim Bowen is here to help.

‘The storm set back preparations for the party’. Here set back means to delay the progress of something. Used more informally, set back can also mean to cost someone a particular amount of money, especially a large amount, as in ‘With the reception, the music, transport and everything, the wedding is going to set me back about fifteen thousand, I reckon’.  

To set down means to write something on a piece of paper so that it will not be forgotten, as in ‘Why don’t you set down your thoughts on paper?’ Usually in the passive voice, it can also be used in the same way as lay down to mean to state officially how something should be done, as in ‘The rules are set down by the sport’s governing body’.

If something unpleasant sets in, it starts to happen and have an effect and is not likely to stop for a considerable amount of time, as in ‘It looks like this rain has set in for the day so we might as well stay in for the rest of the afternoon’ or ‘Shortly after we started the company, a long economic downturn set in’.

Set off has a number of meanings, including ‘to begin a journey’, ‘to make something start working’ (as in ‘She set off the burglar alarm by mistake’), ‘to make something such as a bomb explode’ and ‘to cause a situation or a series of events to happen’ (as in ‘The results of the election were widely regarded as fraudulent and set off mass protests around the country’). It can also be used to mean ‘to make someone start to laugh, cry or talk a lot’, as in ‘The mere mention of her late husband’s name could set her off again’.