Q. Some years ago, I was taught that the only proper salutations for business letters addressed to large institutions and not indivduals were "Dear Sirs," "Gentlemen," and "Dear Sir or Madam." The first two are unacceptable because they are inaccurate and sexist, and I consider the third stilted and Victorian.

Since at the time I was not writing business letters, the matter did not trouble me overmuch. In my present situation, however, I have a a) considerable business correspondence with persons of unkonwn sex, b) a continuing dislike for the forms once taught me, and c) very little acquaintance with women who approve of being called "madam."

I need a form of address that is correct, not antiquated, and that offers no possibility of offending the recipient. Would you please suggest one?

A. What is wrong with being stilted and Victorian? You letter has left Miss Manners, who has not been able to help being stilted and Victorian all her life, sobbing quietly into her cambric handkerchief. So you see, one cannot be sure of writing anything that offers no possibility of offending the recipient.

Miss Manners would also like to know what is wrong with the term "madam." "Madam President," "Prime Minister" are quite attractive titles, and not less respectable because those who hold racier administrative positions have also employed it.

Unless we are to invent such a term as Messirs" or Sirdams" -- and Miss Manners is timid about doing so because of all the nonsensical fuss made over such logical words as "chairperson" -- the only choice is using an all-female word, "Mesdames" or "Gentlewomen," the all-male equivalent, or both.

Q. You have written about how to say "No" -- that you just say it and then keep your mouth shut, not going into a lot of explanations about why you can't accept an invitation or take on a project, which only open you to argument or being caught in lies.

I agree with your theory. But I have tried it, and I just can't stop after that one word, "No." It sounds curt. So to cover that, I go back into all the complicated talk, and get myself right back into the trouble I am trying to avoid.

Help! Can't you give me a modified version of "No" that isn't short?

A. "Oh, dear, thank you so very much, I would simply love to if there were any way I were able, but it's absolutely impossible; and what a terrible shame that is because I would so have enjoyed to, and you were so very kind to have asked me."

Q. I have a question about table setting. When I have my bridge club, I serve dessert and coffee only. What is the correct way to set the table? It is a rather formal affair, and I use my good china and sterling.

A. "Dessert only" is an unfortunate term for a useful form of entertainment. The difficulty is that the negative wording suggests the absence of other courses, rather than the richenss being offered. What you should avoid, in your table setting, is the suggestion that the guests have missed the first three courses. The way to do this is to align it with a self-sufficient form, namely tea, so you will be emphasizing the positive virtue of your offering.

Q. A number of prominent people come to speak at our club and to enjoy a social hour with us afterward. We have general interests, and have had people in widely different fields, some of them quite famous, such as authors who discuss their books. I think it only right to bone up on whatever field it is before meeting them -- I am on the hospitality committee, and often pick them up at the airport and provide transportation to and from their hotels -- but I have noticed that other people don't bother.

Don't you think it is only polite to be able to talk to them about their interests?

A. Yes, if you understand that their chief interest is whether the local bookstore has stocked copies of their books. Otherwise, the rule is that people who are not yet prominent like to talk about their fields, while people who are prefer to talk about how bad the airline and hotel service is on speaking tours.

Q. My son and his wife have six children. They are all through collge, some married, except two girls still at home. One of them is getting married in June. Last night, I said to my daugher-in-law, "Well, how will it feel with only one child at home?" She said, "She is not a child," That was her only reply, I said, "Well, all mothers say 'children' if speaking to one about their family." It wouldn't sound right to say, "Well, how would it feel to have one adult left." What would be the correct phrase?

A. The word "child" means off-spring of any age, as well as meaning a minor. What is incorrect here is the use of semantic double-talk for the purpose of putting down one's mother-in-law.

Q. My daughter, aged 28, is marrying for the second time and she wants to have a church wedding this time. Would you please tell me what the differences from a first to a second wedding are? Should she wear a veil and have her father give her away? What color dress should she wear?

A. The chief difference is in the amount of judgment the bride is assumed to have about what she is doing. It is not customary to have her given away as new, and therefore she is not gift-wrapped in white dress or veil. Miss Manners is not hysterical about the enforcement of this somewhat tasteless symbolism, as some people are, but the conventional bridal dress for a second (or fifth) wedding is a pastel dress or suit with a hat.