Does the Napkin Go Under the Fork or the Knife?

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A fancy folded napkin placed in the center of the place setting is acceptable for less formal meals.
A fancy folded napkin placed in the center of the place setting is acceptable for less formal meals. (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

The table setting for a multi-course meal can be complex and a little confusing. The placement of the napkin and numerous utensils in each diner's personal space varies depending on the level of the formality of the meal. A guest for a formal meal may become unnerved when the napkin is not under the fork or knife, as he might expect.

Formal Place Setting

In a formal place setting, the napkin goes neither under the fork or the knife, but on the charger, a small decorative plate placed on top of the dinner plate. A charger is not required for formal dining; according to Emily Post, the napkin may be laid in the spot reserved for the dinner plate if a charger is not used. The napkin may be folded flat, adorned with a napkin ring or made into a flower or other artistic shape.

Informal Place Setting

Informal dining is a little more relaxed than a formal dinner experience. The placement of the napkin in an informal table setting, according to etiquette, can follow several variations. The first scenario is much like a formal place setting in which the napkin is placed on top of the dinner plate, or if the dinner plate is not yet on the table, in the space the plate will fill. The second variation for the napkin's location on an informal table is placement to the left of the forks, which are also to the left of the dinner plate. A third acceptable variation for an informal meal is placing the napkin underneath the forks to the left of the dinner plate. When adhering to the rules of etiquette, the napkin never goes under the knife.

Space Considerations

Many people do not set the table according to etiquette, do not have multi-course meals on a regular basis and do not own a large dining table that accommodates several forks, knives and spoons for each course. When dining in your own home at a small kitchen table, space may be one of your primary considerations. Placing both the fork and knife on top of your folded napkin and placing the napkin to the left of the plate is a commonly accepted practice for a weeknight dinner.

Safe Placement of the Knife

Although the knife is not set next to the napkin in informal or formal, etiquette-driven meals, the knife must be properly placed on the table for safety purposes. When putting the knife to the right of the dinner plate, the blade should be facing the plate to reduce the risk of diners cutting themselves.

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