PEOPLE OF ALL sorts of genders are reporting great difficulty these days in selecting the proper words to refer to those of the female persuasion.

"Lady," "women" and "girl" are all perfectly good words, but misapplying them can earn one anything from the charge of vulgarity to a good swift smack. We are messing here with matters of deference, condescension, respect, bigotry and two vague concepts, age and rank.

It is troubling enough to get straight who is really what. Those who deliberately misuse the terms in a misbegotten attempt at flattery are asking for it.

A woman is any grown-up female person. A girl is the un-grown-up version.

If you call a wee thing with chubby cheeks and pink hair ribbons a "woman," you will probably not get into trouble, and if you do, you will be able to handle it because she will be under 3 feet tall. However, if you call a grownup by a child's name for the sake of implying that she has a youthful body, you also are implying to an adult that she has a brain to match.

As for ladies, they come in three varieties: ladies, old ladies and young ladies. Old ladies are not merely ladies who have aged, but a separate category of person, as are young ladies.

It is the term "lady" that is most difficult to use.

You must not be influenced by having noticed that Miss Manners refers to all of her acquaintances as ladies (or gentlemen). Miss Manners is prim and old-fashioned, which is part of her considerable charm, and can get away with anything. For anyone else to use the term "lady" when "woman" is meant would be vulgar or even insulting.

A lady is someone who adheres to a rather special and graceful standard of behavior, only nobody knows what it is. This makes it great fun for old ladies to set obscure, tricky and clever tests by which to trap aspiring ladies.

"A lady never goes out of the house without a hat and gloves" is an example of this that put in years of service. What made it so good while it lasted was that it could be used to eliminate every woman who went out on her porch early to fetch the paper and mail.

If Miss Manners had to come up with a modern version, she would say that a lady may use an occasional obscene word in exasperation but never on her T-shirt.

What restricts the use of the word "lady" among the courteous is that it is intended to set a woman apart from ordinary humanity, and in the working world that is not a help, as women have discovered in many bitter ways.

"Lady" is, therefore, a word that should be used sparingly, and never in ways that interfere with a woman's livelihood. Because it should be a term of respect, its potential for sarcastic use is staggering; and snideness is always presumed when the word is used inappropriately, as in "lady lawyer" or "saleslady."

But because respect should be accorded to the aged, an elderly female is called an old lady, not an old woman, unless she is a particularly nasty old thing and you think you can get away with it.

"Young lady" is also a special catagory. A young lady is a female child who has just done something dreadful. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS

Q: When a man is named after his grandfather, say, I was under the impression he was John Smith 2nd. Our minister is always written up as John Smith II. Am I wrong in thinking Roman numerals are reserved for royalty?

A: Yes, but not nearly so wrong as some royalty Miss Manners could name, but won't, who think they can use the numeral I before they have been replaced by II. A king who is the first of his line to bear the given names of, say, Juan Smith (Miss Manners has disguised the name) should style himself King Juan Smith, not King Juan Smith I.

Q: We have a quarrel about married couples who order different food at restaurants. I can't stand to kiss my husband when he has garlic or onions, which I don't eat, on his breath.

A: Well, Miss Manners is not going to do it for you.

Q: While ebgaged in animated conversation at a dinner party recently, and holding my coffee cup momentarily motionless in an elevated position, I did not notice that I was holding it tipped at an angle, until shouts of alarm from several other guests made me aware that the cup was dripping rapidly (but fortunately, directly above its saucer).

Feeling embarrassed at this fauxpas , and wishing to correct any bad impression, I meticulously picked up the saucer with my other hand, and carefully began pouring its contents back into my coffee cup, at the same time resuming my conversation.

Almost immediately, however, I was startled by a loud outcry from my hostess, and discovered to my astonishment that while I was still pouring the saucer back into the cup, I had again inadvertantly allowed the cup to tip, and now both the cup and the saucer were dripping directly onto the table.

My hostess was very angry, and I was understandably quite upset by this situation, considering that my intentions were only the best. Miss Manners, do you think that I deserve a public rebuke? In a time when good conversation is so rare a commodity, do you not think that my hostess was unseemingly rude about this unfortunate incident? Also, what should I reply to wags who are now telling me that I can't handle drinking and talking at the same time, and should consider entering national politics?

A: Why not enter national politics? You seem to take naturally to mistaking a well-meant warning against pursuing a course of disaster for a personal rebuke, and to feel that being a good talker and meaning well excuses you from making a mess of things.

Q: Please help me. My son is an attorney and also dean of a law school, and my daughter-in-law is a dentist. Please tell me how I address an envelope when writing to both of them? What do I say when I introduce them to my friends?

A: In introducing them to your friends, you give their names and the relationship but no titles. Socially you could either use their titles, and address them on an envelope as Dean and Dr., with their separate names, or together as Mr. and Mrs. Way is it that Miss Manners feels you are searching for another way -- a way of showing that you value your son's professional achievements higher than your daughter-in-law's, even though she has the title of "Dr." and he doesn't?

Q: Please stand corrected. The sheer fabric made up to cover a window is named a curtain. A solid fabric made up into window covering or decoration is named drapery.

A: This is true for commercial purposes, but in ordinary conversation the word "drapery" is never used for anything that covers of decorates a window. All such materials are called "curtains." Please stand re-corrected.

Q: Is there a proper order in which one eats the food on one's plate? Is one allowed to eat all of one item before consuming another item, or should one mix the items in each forkful?

A: What you have here is a classic instance of the cruel dichotomy between proper order and animal appetite. In these cases, Miss Manners always tries to find a way to satisfy both.

People feel passionately about the order in which they want to eat their food. Some plan ahead, eating all of what they like least and saving the best for last. Others, more cunning, eat what they like best first, and then announce, either aloud or to themselves, depending on their age, "But I'm all full now!" Still others prefer a mixture of foods.

However, to pile lots of foods on a fork looks disgusting, and so does demolishing one side of the plate while leaving the other intact. For mixers, Miss Manners suggests discreetly sending in two forkfuls of separate foods and mixing in the mouth. For choosers, she recommends taking no more than three consecutive mouthfuls of one food before breaking in with one of a different food. This is a compromise but so is life.

Q: I have a troubling problem on my mind. I come from a rather well-to-do and well-respected family. My brother has already married repectability. But my sister is going ahead with a marriage to a dense-headed man whose family has a history of marrying money.

I have met his brother, who felt it necessary to not even speak to me. His mother is a rather blunt woman with difinite ideas on her mind that she likes to voice.

We are having a very, very fashionable wedding. To make a long story short: How should I treat this rather interesting group called his family?

A: "With condescension," is obviously the answer you have in mind. No doubt you are asking Miss Manners how to pass this off as politeness.

Well, you are in luck, because the best way to be condescending in such a situation is to be excessively polite. If you ignore these people at your very, very fashionable wedding (Miss Manners wonders how much the caterer charges for each "very"), you will expose yourself to justified criticism. You must hover graciously over these people whom you so dislike, steering them gently about by the shoulders and enthusiastically introducing them to everyone. It will be clear to all exactly how you feel about them.

P.S Congratulations. If your sister's fiance's family has a history of marrying money, he must be quite rich.

Q: Recently, my wife and I gave a dinner party for younger couples in my office. To our surprise, we discovered that many of the married couples use different names. For example, it was not Mr. and Mrs. John Smith; it was Mr. John Smith and Ms. Lydia Brown. The problem was how to address the invitations.

We solved the problem in the case of each of the female office members by addressing the envelope only to her, and stating on the invitation, "We hope that you and your husband will be able to join us for dinner." In the case of each of the male office members, we addressed the envelope only to him, and included a similar message in the invitation.

We would like to know whether or not this was an appropriate way of handling the situation. Or should we have addressed the envelope to Mr. John Smith and Ms. Lydia Brown?

A: Either is correct, but your solution is particularly good because it emphasizes your wanting the office worker whether or not the spouse can attend. In fact, it's so clever, Miss Manners wishes she had thought of it herself.