Formal Table Setting Etiquette

Updated April 17, 2017

Most people have a rough idea of how to set the family dinner table. But having multiple knives, a bunch of forks and several spoons--not to mention glasses, small plates and bowls--for a formal table can seem complicated at first glance. The patterns are set up for the convenience of guests. So, even if you don't plan to invite the Queen of England over for dinner, it's good to know the basics of formal table-setting etiquette.

A table set for a formal occasion should be symmetrical. The centrepiece or pieces should be evenly spaced, and the place settings should all have the same distance between them. You also should evenly space the utensils, glasses and other items.


Each setting has one main plate that is the focal point of the meal. Oddly, you don't ever actually eat off this charger, or service plate. It is used to hold the smaller plates for the appetizer, first course and any other courses that come before the main dish. When the entrée arrives, the charger is switched out for the entrée plate.

The napkin awaits the guest on the charger. If you're not using a charger, it goes on the tablecloth where the charger would be.

There should also be a butter plate, placed at approximately the 10 o'clock spot, if the charger were a clock face.


There can be as many as five glasses on a formal table, depending on the courses served and the drinks that go with them. The largest glass, for water, goes between 1 and 2 o'clock around the charger. Other glasses follow to the right of the water glass. The first one could be for a champagne aperitif. Then, if appropriate, are glasses for red and/or white wine, depending on the meal, perhaps followed by a small sherry glass.


The utensils are what usually scare potential hosts. The key is to place the silverware in the order guests will use it, from the outside in. Knives and spoons go to the right of the charger, and forks are on the left. In the illustration that the Emily Post Institute uses to describe a formal table setting, the appetizer is shellfish, which requires a special, small fork. Therefore, it goes on the farthest edge of the setting. However, it would go to the right; it is the only kind of fork that gets this special treatment.

Typical utensils include soup spoons or fruit spoons, salad forks and knives, fish forks and knives, dinner forks and knives, shellfish forks and butter knives. Remember the outside-in rule and place the utensils according to your serving order.

Knives should be placed with the blade facing the charger. The exception is the butter knife, which goes diagonally on the butter plate, with the handle toward the charger pointing outward.

There is a limit: No formal table should have more than three of any utensil at one time (a shellfish fork doesn't count). If there were more than three courses, then the servers would bring in more silverware with additional courses.

Other Ideas

Martha Stewart offers a couple of other options. She suggests that dessert utensils can be placed horizontally at the top of the charger, if you're not going to bring them in with that course. Also in an addendum to the silverware rules, spoons go to the far right together, then knives as you work your way in, even if you will need a knife before you need the spoon.

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About the Author

Denise Kelly is the copy editor for a small publisher in Paris, France. Before that she was a copy editor at daily newspapers, starting in graduate school. She has been writing professionally since 1996. She has a Master of Science in journalism and a Bachelor of Arts in political science.