(From A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe, Part II Cambridge Choir, chapter 12 September 1957)

  • (The boy chorister saying goodbye to his mum)

'I'm so proud of you,' Evelyn (his mum) is saying, the tide in her eyes still high.'And so would your father be. You know that, don't you?'

'Yes.' He puts his hand on her shoulder because he can't bear her to look sad. She stands up so quickly, his hand slaps down onto the grey flannel of his new shorts.

'Don't start being all nice to me, William Lavery, you'll set me off.' She smiles down at him, blinking.'I'm allowed to come and see how you're getting on in six weeks. . . ..'

I know what "set somebody off laughing/crying" etc. means, but the ing-form is missing there. What does "You'll set me off" (without the ing-form) mean? Is there a synonym? Does it mean something like "You'll put me out of countenance"?

  • 1
    Side note: Parents use the given name and surname of their children when angrily reprimanding them. For example, You get in here this minute, William Lavery! So this is a sort of mock or feigned anger, in actuality a stiff-upper-lip form of endearment.
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 27 at 17:46
  • 1
    @TimR - even more so, full name. Michael Aloysius Wilcox Harvey! Stop that NOW! Commented Apr 27 at 18:21

1 Answer 1


Yes, you are correct that this is related to the phrase "set somebody off laughing/crying." Commonly, this is just shortened to "set somebody off" with the specific emotional response being clear by context.

In this context, Evelyn says "you'll set me off" meaning "I'll start crying."

In other contexts, "you'll set me off" could mean that the speaker will begin any strong/outward emotional response like crying, laughing, shouting, etc.

  • 2
    My mother would have said 'you'll make me start'. 'Start crying' she meant. Commented Apr 27 at 18:27

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