It seems to me that in English usage "set off" is almost irreplaceable in the collocation I refer to in the question and in similar phrases, e.g., "comma(s) set(s) off (this or that)." As if everyone is afraid to use a synonym or a synonymous phrase – almost like a conspiracy. To me it sounds like a person who is parroting the same words over and over again without 100% understanding of what the words mean.

Please, can somebody provide a definitive definition of "set off" in the above-mentioned context?

PS Perhaps I just need access to a really good big dictionary, but, unfortunately, I ain't got one. In the following link, for example, "set off" and "separate" are treated as two distinct concepts, but it doesn't help me to understand what the words "set off" mean: http://www.cws.illinois.edu/workshop/writers/tips/commas/

PPS Please correct my writing if I've made any mistakes. Thank you.

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  • TFD: "2. To indicate as being different; distinguish: features setting him off from the crowd." And even more appropriately, "3. To direct attention to by contrast; accentuate: set off a passage with italics." thefreedictionary.com/set+off – Kris Jul 21 '15 at 6:56
  • @Kris Yes, I looked up "set off" at www.thefreedictionary.com before I posted this question. These are good definitions, and they fit the examples that follow them. However, in a sentence you set off some sort of additional information, not the main clause. Why would you accentuate something additional, something subordinate, and not the main structure in a sentence? – Siegfried Zaytsev Jul 21 '15 at 9:41
  • @Kris As far as definition #2 is concerned, it sort of fits, but let's take, for example, a dependent clause or a long prepositional phrase at the beginning of a sentence – they are set off by a comma. However, at the end of a sentence they are not set off by a comma. So they are different at the beginning of a sentence; then we move them to the end of the sentence, and they stop being different? Sounds fishy to me. – Siegfried Zaytsev Jul 21 '15 at 9:50
  • @Kris I would be happy if some dictionary just said that in the above-mentioned context "to set off" means "to separate," but the link that I provided in the question treats them as two separate concepts, and it confuses me. – Siegfried Zaytsev Jul 21 '15 at 10:03

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) offers the following entry for "set off":

set off vt (ca. 1598) 1 a : to put in relief : show up by contrast b : ADORN, EMBELLISH c : to set apart : make distinct or outstanding 2 a : OFFSET, COMPENSATE {more variety in the Lancashire weather to set off its most disagreeable phases—Geog. Jour.} b : to make a setoff of {the respective totals shall be set off against one another —O.P. Hobson} 3 a : to set in motion : cause to begin b : to cause to explode 4 : to measure off on a surface ~ vi : to start out on a courser a journey {set off for home}

The sense of set off intended in the phrase "set off [something] with commas" is, I think, definition 1(c) above:

to set apart : make distinct or outstanding

If the something being set off with commas is an independent clause, such as the one you're reading now, it seems clear that the commas do succeed in setting it apart and making it distinct—and that's enough to satisfy definition 1(c). The set-off phrase doesn't have to be made outstanding: that's simply an alternative possibility to being made distinct. It follows that the sentence "I set off the phrase 'such as the one you're reading now' with commas" is a valid use of the verb set off.

  • Thank you. Very thorough answer. You've put my doubts as to the meaning of this phrasal verb to rest. – Siegfried Zaytsev Sep 6 '15 at 15:32

"Set" is one of the oldest and most versatile words in the English language. The OED takes 16 pages to give the definitions of the verb in 154 senses in 11 major categories. The shades of meaning for "set off" number 12.The meaning here of "set off" is to mark so as to contrast. If we follow your link, we find that commas "set off" an appositive, a grammatical construct that renames a noun:

His house, the largest in the county, was located on the post road.

The house is the same building as the largest in the county, and so is renamed by the italicized phrase. That phrase is "set off," i.e., distinguished in the sentence by the commas on either side of it.

If you go here, you'll find a picture of a pendant with a pearl "set off" with diamonds.

This is not to be confused with another meanings of "set off": to start a journey and to light an explosive

We set off for the park to set off fireworks.

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