I chanced upon these sentences, and I wondered about their grammar because they don’t sound right to me:

  • The wind sets all the bells to ringing.
    (Should this be “sets all bells ringing”?)

  • The aroma of the cake sets my mouth to watering.
    (Should this be “makes my mouth water”?)

Are those right or wrong? If they’re ok, then what is the grammar they’re following? If they’re not ok, then what should they be instead and why would native speakers get this wrong?

  • Possible duplicate of "To hear" or "to hearing"?
    – herisson
    May 19 '17 at 21:40
  • 1
    All four of your examples are correct. Both the originals, and the "should this be"s.
    – GEdgar
    May 19 '17 at 21:41
  • Prepositions can introduce a vast assortment of phrase types, and "-ing" words can fill an only slightly less vast spectrum of syntactic types. I wouldn't bet against them.
    – Hot Licks
    May 19 '17 at 21:46
  • I would guess this is a dialectal thing, based on the previous comments. To me, the versions with to are completely ungrammatical, and I would have assumed they were written by a non-native speaker if two native speakers hadn't just commented that it's grammatical to them. @GEdgar Is “set the house to alight” (with adjectives instead of gerunds) also grammatical to you, or is it only with gerunds? May 19 '17 at 22:10
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet... "Set the house to alight" NO. But "Set the house to burning" YES. "Set the dial to maximum" YES.
    – GEdgar
    May 19 '17 at 23:58

The word "to" isn't just used before infinitives. It has lots of other uses as a preposition, generally before noun phrases. Since "ringing" and "watering" can be noun phrases, "to ringing" and "to watering" are correct in some circumstances.

For example:

This trouble can be almost entirely eliminated by careful attention to watering and ventilation. (Market Growers Journal - Volume 16 - Page 43)

Set ... to ...ing

Both of the example sentences you gave use the structure "set [direct object] to [verb]ing." In this construction, "to" is a preposition. There is no general reason it would not be able to be followed by an "ing" word.

I also don't know of any specific objection to this construction with the verb "set". An example is listed without comment in the American Heritage Dictionary's entry for set:

The noise set the dog to barking.

Since there is no reason I know of to object to this, I would say it is correct, and so are the two sentences you mentioned in your question.

I don't see anything wrong with "sets all bells ringing" or "makes my mouth water" either, but I wouldn't say your proposed changes are necessary.


Set to is described as an idiom

To begin working energetically (The Free Dictionary)


to start to do something (vigorously) (The Free Dictionary)

(This is different from the hyphenated form set-to, which has a different meaning.)

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