Formal Silverware Placement & Rules: A How-To Guide

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We have long forgotten many complex and labor-intensive dining rituals, even in modern-day formal situations. However, the intricate art of arranging silverware is widespread, and may be encountered anywhere, from a friend's home dinner party to the White House. Because it is still so common, it's a good idea to become familiar with the traditional layout of silverware just in case you need to tackle a difficult dinner, or want to make your home dining table more elegant.

The Basics

Chances are, when you sit down to a formal dinner, you will be overwhelmed with the amount of silverware in front of you. Don't be. Breathe. The key to making it through this meal is a very simple mantra: Start at the outside and work your way in. The silverware is set up to mimic the courses, so the pieces of silverware that are placed furthest away from your dinner plate correspond to the first courses, such as the appetizer, salad, soup, etc. Even if you can't remember exactly which piece matches which course, this handy rule will guide you.

When in doubt, look to your host/hostess. While your other diners may be just as confused as you, the hostess will undoubtedly be using the right tool.

The Nitty Gritty

Of course, if you're looking to set up your own dining room table, simple phrases will not do the trick. If you plan on taking the plunge, then here is how you set up your formal dining silverware, from left to right:

  1. Fish Fork: Far outside left of the plate. Directly to the right of your napkin.
  2. Salad Fork: Directly to the right of your fish fork, nearer to the plate.(In a European dining setting, the salad is served after the main course. In this instance, place the salad fork in between the plate and the main course fork, following the "start at the outside and work your way in" rule.)
  3. Main Course Fork: Directly to the right of your salad fork, closest to the plate.
  4. Dinner Knife: On the right side, closest to the plate.
  5. Fish Knife: On the right side, directly to the right of the dinner knife.
  6. Soup Spoon: Far outside right of the plate. Directly to the right of the fish knife.

On top of the plate:

  1. Butter knife: Lays on top of the bread plate, which is placed in the upper left of the setting.
  2. Dessert Silverware: Placed horizontally above the dinner plate.

The "cutting" side of each knife must be placed inwardly toward the plate. This was traditionally done to signify that they were not to be used as weapons. Although, if the food isn't great, then we'd understand your temptation to break tradition.

Occasionally, the dessert silver is brought in when dessert is being served. If this is your intention, then it is perfectly acceptable to place the utensils to the left or right of the dessert. If you plan on having the dessert silverware on the table at the start of the meal, then it must be placed above the plate, as mentioned before.

The Rules

In addition to the elaborate setup of the silverware, there are also formal rules of etiquette that must be followed when eating under these circumstances.

  • The butter knife is only for spreading butter. Don't attempt to cut your bread or any other item of food with your butter knife. Break bread with your hands before adding butter.
  • Never put your silverware back on the table. Once you pick up a piece of silverware, rest it on your plate in between bites.
  • Keep the fork in your left hand, and knife in your right. This is true of any dining table. However, if you are in the United States, it is also acceptable to switch your fork to your right hand in order to take a bite.
  • Hold your fork with the tines down. It may feel silly at first, but it is typical in a formal dining setting. Use your index finger for stability. For soft foods, such as mashed potatoes, keep your fork oriented the same way, and scoop the food onto the back of the fork.
  • Signal when you are NOT finished. Place your fork and knife so the tips cross in the center of the plate. This will let the waiter know that you are not ready for your plate to be removed.
  • Signal when you are finished. When you are done with a course, place your fork and knife (blade turned in) at the five o'clock position on your plate. The tines of the fork and tip of the knife should be facing the eleven o'clock position.

With so many rules to remember, formal dining may seem like more work than it's worth. This isn't the case. Don't allow yourself to get overwhelmed. And, as with most things in life, when in doubt, just smile and nod.

Last Updated: April 11, 2013
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About Chanti Burnette Chanti was a freelance writer for

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