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I know that grammatically "I sat on the couch", or "I set the cup on the table".
I know that if you are doing the action yourself then it is 'sat'. Why doesn't this apply to the sun? The sun is doing the action

So couldn't you say "I watched the sun sat" rather than "I watched the sun set? Maybe there is a simple answer.

I mean really, the sun doesn't do either right? The sun doesn't move. If anything the earth is what does all the moving. Thanks

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  • The fact that the Sun only appears to set is a non-issue. There are lots of examples of English phrases that are not meant as literal scientific assertions.
    – Carl Smith
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 14:47
  • I think you've just discovered one of the many edge cases in English where the rules are broken. This usually happens with older phrases. I've not put this as an answer, as someone else may offer a better explanation.
    – Carl Smith
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 14:57
  • Note that even if we are specifically talking about the sun sitting down, we would say "I watched the sun sit", not "sat".
    – 1006a
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 18:29
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    @FumbleFingers They are causative pairs dating from PIE, like lie/lay and rise/raise. The vowel change indicates causation, like drink/drench. Sit/set are identical: the causative one causes something else to become in the state indicated by the non-causative.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 19:19
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    @tchrist: I did vaguely know that once, but had forgotten. Actually, I suppose it could be useful to a learner to be aware of that "causative" background. But it's still an ELL question, imho. I also seem to recall that set takes up more dictionary space than any other English word - which would only get worse if they included sit as a subheading within that section. Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 19:27

4 Answers 4

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The sun does set if we use this common definition for set:

a : to pass below the horizon : go down * the sun sets

b : to come to an end [link]

...but it doesn't set something down, or sit on the horizon. It's a different definition entirely.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry on this use of "set." Look under "Etymology" for available detail. I would say that except for recent changes in language, the information you want will be in OED or good luck finding it anywhere.

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    I assume this confusion is arising because of this US English definition of 'set' to cause to sit : place in or on a seat (per Merriam Webster, which I'm not aware of in british English.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 16:04
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    @Spagirl That is in fact the original, most basic meaning of the word, a causative of sit. Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 18:11
  • I think the sun can too sit on the horizon, at least in elevated or poetic language. And in vernacular language we certainly say that the sun sits low in the sky.
    – Deipatrous
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 9:00
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There are multiple definitions for set. A whole set of definitions, actually. I believe you may be incorrectly assuming the above sentence refers to the primary definition of "put, lay, or stand (something) in a specified place or position."

If you use the definition "to bring into a specified state," it makes more sense.

Also: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/set

Scroll down to transitive verb, definition

6 a : to pass below the horizon : go down. the sun sets

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  • There are multiple definitions of "set". The OED entry for "set" (including quotations) is about 50000 words long, longer than some novels.
    – James K
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 20:19
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Set is used to describe the movement of the sun or other luminary. It means to go down; to make an apparent descent towards and below the horizon. (OED)

At the end of the day you can watch the sun set / watch as the sun sets.

Or, if you did this yesterday, you can say -

I watched the sun set / watched as the sun set, (past tense (and past participle) of set is set).

1816 Scott Black Dwarf vi, in Tales of my Landlord 1st Ser. I. 119 The sun setting red.

1823 F. D. Hemans Siege Valencia i. 121 Till the last pale star had set.

1847 C. Brontë Jane Eyre I. v. 68 The moon was set, and it was very dark.

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There is another reason you can't say I saw the sun sat: that is not how we conjugate a sentence like that.

Let's take another verb as an example: to eat. We would say

He eats.
He ate.
I see him eat.
I saw him eat.

Note that eat never gets conjugated in the second pair of sentences! It is always the bare infinitive. Only the main verb is conjugated. Since the verb that the sun is performing is to set, it can only be "watched the sun set".

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  • But the verb "set" is used indicatively too, with "sun" as the subject - eg. The sun set beneath the horizon or in the present tense The sun sets at 8.04pm today.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 23:40

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