I have read that set is American and that lay is British.

But I do not think it is nearly as simple as that. I grew up in rural England in the late 1940s/50s, and we always set the table. In fact lay still jars with me now.

So who sets and who lays the table?

And in Britain, what is the social class implication? Is it posher to set or to lay. What do the servants in Downton Abbey do?

  • Lay the table / set the table: separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.it/2006/06/… – user66974 Mar 16 '15 at 15:00
  • @Josh61 Yes I read that before I posted and it seemed to be saying that set was American. – WS2 Mar 16 '15 at 15:02
  • I grew up in less rural England in the 1950s, and we always set the table too. And lay still jars slightly with me too. We had dinner at midday. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 16 '15 at 15:06
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    I use both forms, and I don't think my choice is affected by whether or not there's a tablecloth involved. But my preconceptions over "level of formality" are precisely at odds with that concept anyway. – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '15 at 15:48
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    Similar point: in my experience many Americans say set (and expecially set down) where I would say put (down). – Colin Fine Mar 16 '15 at 18:56

It's not so much that set is American and that lay is British - rather, that Brits use both forms more or less equally often...

enter image description here

...whereas Americans almost exclusively stick with set...

enter image description here

Personally, I find set slightly more "formal, dated" - but I suppose that's just because half a century ago, my mother always instructed one of us kids to lay the table. We were true peasants, so I always assumed set was a bit la-di-da (obviously it's not).

I think it's a given that since NGrams are drawn from written published sources, they'll tend to over-represent more formal usages. So I suspect that if I could compare formal/informal contexts (contracted I'll lay the table, as opposed to I will lay the table)), this might well support my gut feel about the difference (in BrE - obviously the concept is largely meaningless for AmE). But there simply aren't enough written instances to meaningfully compare.

  • Actually 'you set the table' is an expression that is also used in graphic/computer context. That's why I used set/lay the table for lunch. – user66974 Mar 16 '15 at 15:34
  • @Josh61: Apparently you could set the table with something of that sense a century ago, but it's worth noting the writer there used "scare quotes", suggesting it was an unusual and/or new usage at the time. But it probably does account for some of the post-1980 increase in the charts. – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '15 at 15:45
  • What I mean is that the hits for 'you set the table' refer also to: google.it/…, so they are not really representative of the usage in question. – user66974 Mar 16 '15 at 15:50
  • @Josh61: Nothing in my answer would be undermined if I'd excluded everything from 1993 on (the date from which your search starts). – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '15 at 15:55
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    @Josh61: I give up. Enlighten me. How does that affect the validity of my answer? – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '15 at 16:02

It is , and in my neck of the woods, London & home counties, still is, Lay The Table.

Set the table would probably get you a slap from my Grandmother in 1953!!!

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