IF MISS Manners hears any more contemptuous descriptions of etiquette as being a matter of "knowing which fork to use," she will run amok with a sharp weapon, and the people she attacks will all be left with four tiny holes in their throats as if they had been the victims of Siamese vampires.

Knowing or caring which fork to use is regularly cited as proof that one is narrowly fixed on a detail of life that is probably a deliberate booby trap set by the snobbish to catch the unsuspecting; and that therefore one has no time or heart left for the great spiritual values of life. The Great Fork Problem is used to ridicule the holy subject of etiquette, but the defenders of etiquette use it, too, when they claim that manners are "a matter of being considerate of others, not which fork to use."

In either case, this is like declaring that as long as you truly have love for humanity, it is not important that you happened to put your left shoe on your right foot and your right shoe on your left foot.

Forks are not that difficult. It is possible that anyone who has learned to operate a computer, kitchen machine or washer with delicate fabric cycles also may be capable of being trained to operate as many as three forks.

Why is this important? Because the person who has not mastered the fork is going to make a mess, miss the last course of dinner, or make the hostess get up from the table. Also, the forks may get tired some day of being bad-mouthed, and may cut off your food supply.

Therefore, we will now take a minute to learn everything there is to know about Which Fork To Use.

Use the one nearest to your left hand.

That's it. That's all there is to know. Now run outside and cultivate the spirit until dinner time.

When you come in to dinner, you will find, typically (if you are dining with Miss Manners) that there are three forks to the left of your plate, three knives to the right, a soup spoon, and a teeny-weeny little forklet lying on the diagonal, resting its head in the bowl of the spoon.

Now, what does this tell you? It tells you that you are not going to go to bed hungry; that's what it tells you.

The wee little fork is the oyster fork, which may not actually be nearest to the left hand, but is pointing left, to give you a hint. Use it to eat your oysters, dear.

For the next course, you relax from the fork question, and just eat your soup. With the spoon, dummy.

The third course is a fish, which you will recognize immediately from the funny look in its eye. If you remember your lesson, you will reach for the fork nearest your left hand, the outside fork, and guess what? That is the fish fork!

Then will come the meat, and the next fork you will discover nearest your hand will be...? Show of hands, please. That is correct; the meat fork.

Now we will eat salad, and the fork we will find will be; yes, it will be the salad fork. Naturally, the knives to the right of the plate will be moving right along at the same time. Miss Manners has not mentioned them because no one ever complains of not knowing which knife to use. They don't dare make nasty remarks about knives, because knives don't fool around.

There will now be a moment of panic in which you become aware of the fact that you have no forks left, nor knives, nor spoons, and you haven't eaten your dessert. Have you done something wrong? Is it so wrong that you will be sent to bed without any dessert?

No, indeed. All is well. The dessert plate is about to arrive. On it will be, of all things, a dessert fork, and a dessert spoon. You will remove these, putting the spoon to the right of your dessert plate, and the fork to the left, so you'll know just where they are when you need them.

That wasn't so hard now, was it?

MISS MANNERS RESPONDS

Q: Is it permissible to scratch in public if you have a bad itch?

A: What would you do if Miss Manners said, "No?"

Q: A man who works near me has had colds all winter long. I don't know why he doesn't have the decency to stay home instead of spreading germs in the office, but anyway, he keeps spraying things up his nose and I find it disgusting. Don't you think his behavior is inconsiderate of others?

A: Which behavior? Being sick? Working? Spraying the nose? No doubt all of them are, but we must judge them in comparison to the alternatives. In the case of the nose spray, the alternative is for the nose-owner to attempt to inhale through a clogged passageway, thus producing a squeaking sound that is neither esthetically attractive nor accompanied by success, so the nose spray seems a preferable solution.

Q: Where exactly does the salad bowl go?

A: Directly under the salad. Where this combination is then placed on the table depends on whether the salad is being served by itself, in which case it takes center stage, or whether it is a side dish, in which it is served on the side. The left side.

Q: Last weekend, a young woman who had come to visit me in the countryside (I am a bachelor) had a baffling experience in the woods.While wandering alone through the forest, my guest was approached by one of my neighbors, recently divorced and twice her age of 30 years. He was carrying a shotgun and suggested she join him at his home for a drink. Confused, she ran through the woods and collapsed screaming in my kitchen. Should I approach my neighbor on the topic? Being a New Yorker, I am not sure of local customs and do not wish to make a faux-pas .

A: Outside of New York, it is the custom to refrain from approaching a neighbor with a topic critical of his behavior if he is carrying a shotgun.

Q: My fiance gave me a double-strand pearl necklace as an engagement present. I would be much happier having the pearls in one long necklace, opera-length. What do you think about the delicate question of my having the pearls restrung?

A: What Miss Manners thinks is that pearl necklaces must have odd numbers of strands -- one, three, five and so on, depending on how long your neck and your purse are. Having learned this rule in Japan or some place, she makes it a firm tenet of her life. Therefore, Miss Manners thinks that restringing the two strands into one is not only permissible but imperative. Perhaps, however, what you are really interested in is what your fiance will think when he sees you have tampered with his gift. In that case, why don't you ask him?

Q: I have recently been bringing dried prunes to work as a mid-morning snack. At my boarding school in Switzerland, young ladies were taught to dispose of fruit pits by discreetly extracting them from the mouth with a spoon. This seems impractical at the office. Please tell me what is good form in this case.

A: The rule about extraneous material attached to food is that it goes out the same way it went in. (Since this is not possible in the case of extreme and sudden illness, it is good form to leave the table when contemplating such an affliction.) An exception to the rule is fish, who always want to do everything different from everybody else; fish bones go into the mouth (or, more often, the throat), by fork and come out by hand.

Now, let us consider your prunes. When fruit goes into the mouth by spoon, the refuse, which is to say the pit, exists by spoon. Consider it as a round-trip excursion in which you must use the same carrier for the return or forfeit the price of the ticket. Undoubtedly you are eating your dried prunes by hand at the office. Therefore you extract the pits by hand.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blueblack ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of The Washington Post .