'All Set': A Phrase Beyond "Ready"
What to Know
While all set commonly means "ready," it has developed a set of idiomatic uses that could confuse non-native speakers. For example, "are you all set?" is often used to mean "are you finished?" "The bill is all set" means that the bill has been taken care of. And perhaps at a store you might hear "do you need help or are you all set?" implying that "all set" means one needs no help.
The common meaning of the phrase all set is "completely ready" or "wholly prepared," or—to put it another way—"in the proper state for some purpose, use, or activity." Some familiar examples are "Dinner is all set," "Your hotel room is all set," "Are you all set for school?," "Are we all set to leave?" (The all, by the way, can be dropped without loss of meaning, only with loss of the stress of completeness, since adjectival set is synonymous with ready and prepared.)
'All Set' as an Idiom
Besides denoting being ready or prepared, all set has developed idiomatic senses. They can be considered idiomatic because they are not derived from any combination of the ordinary meanings of all and set; their development is peculiar, as well as is their acceptance into the English language, considering the lack of semantic connection between the words.
The accepted meanings include:
entirely finished, completed, or done
not wanting or needing assistance or anything more
thoroughly dealt with
When all set is used in one of these senses, the phrase is often readily understood—and by a wide range of English speakers from all areas of the country. However, like many idioms before it, the phrase's meanings are not equal to the sum of its parts. As those encountering it for the first time might be (justifiably) confused, we will here provide an introduction to the idiomatic uses of all set in hope that you will be all set upon your next encounter.
All Set: Finished
There are countless instances in which all set is used with the meaning of "entirely finished, completed, or done." A brokenhearted friend might resolve that they are "all set with relationships," or the person standing next to you at the bus stop on another below-zero day might chatter that they are "all set with winter." A particularly common occasion is at a restaurant, pub, coffee shop, or wherever you might be served food and drink.
WAITER: Are you all set?
DINER: Yes, I'm all set.
To those familiar with this curt question-response, there are two ways to interpret it. The waiter could be asking the diner whether they are finished with their meal (impatient to clear the table); the diner then confirms that they are finished (and are most likely either ready for dessert or the bill). This same exchange might also occur shortly after being seated at a table in which case the waiter is inquiring whether the diner is ready to order, which they just so happen to be. Without additional information—as that provided by a modifying prepositional phrase, as in "Are you all set with your meal?," or by context—it is impossible to interpret what exactly is meant in this two-line exchange. But we digress. The point is all set can be used to say that you are finished, completed, or done with something or that you are ready to do something.
All Set: I Don't Need Assistance
Considering another scenario, a store employee might notice a shopper looking around as if in search of something specific and ask "Are you all set?" This all set means "not wanting or needing assistance or anything more." Basically, the employee is asking the shopper if they need assistance in finding something. The shopper might respond with "I'm good/fine/OK" or with an equivalent "I'm all set"—that is, if they don't need assistance. Another example of this use is when a birthday party guest declines a fourth piece of cake with "all set," which indicates that he doesn't want more.
All Set: Taken Care Of
Lastly, all set can communicate that something has been "thoroughly dealt with." The computer tech who debugged your computer might apply the phrase in this sense to inform you that the bugs have been terminated, or the car mechanic might say, while handing you your keys, "All set—and ready to go. Here's the bill."
Context usually helps determine the meaning of these idiomatic uses of all set that don't jibe with those of the word set. But sometimes deciphering how the phrase is being used can be tricky.
FRIEND: Are you ready to watch another episode?
YOU: I'm all set.
Are you ready to watch or not? The response is ambiguous. However, if an affirmative "yes" or negative "no" were included in your response, your friend would have a better understanding of what your answer is. "Yes, I'm all set" means "Yes, I'm ready"; no in "No, I'm all set" emphasizes that you are done watching the series for now.
In sum, there is the standard meaning of all set referring to being ready or prepared, and then there are idiomatic uses to be set for. (Hopefully, you are now.) For those who frequently use all set idiomatically, please consider adding a "yes" or "no" or a prepositional phrase to your "I'm all set" statement to better communicate your question or response.
We think we are now all set (with all set), and we hope you are set.