Q. As a single lady who includes married friends in dinner parties in my home. I am puzzled by the frequency with which I hear married persons planning to invite "a few other couples" to their dinner parties. I find this particularly distressing in light of the fact that the speakers are often those whose weddings occasioned my most extravagant expenditures in Bloomie's fine china department.

Although it has long been my understanding that unescorted single ladies need not be invited to parties where the entertainment is planned around group sex or the Superbowl, I was under the impression that dining in most private homes these days does not require a mate. Am I mistaken?

A. Miss Manners certainly hopes you are not mistaken, or a great many people would starve to death, at least socially. The Noah's Ark dinner party is a mistake of long standing however; but it is now sinking under its own weight.

Placing dinner guests in an alternating pattern of boy-girl-boy-girl round the table was traditionally considered to be as important and decorative as the pairing of candlesticks and saltcellars on the table. Hostesses kept careful lists of "extra" men and women to be matched, which was a great deal of trouble, so they found it easier to choose friends who had made themselves into pre-packaged sets, or what we call marriages.

Nowadays, marriage no longer guarantees the sanctity for the matched dinner table. Husbands and wives thoughtlessly unmatch and re-match themselves without consulting the wishes of their dinner hosts, and even married people who remain together are claiming the right to be accepted socially by their friends then their spouses are not accompanying them.

Therefore, the difficulties, which formerly affected single ladies who were not welcome without escorts -- single men who were expected to "fill in" at a moment's notice, husbands and wives who were disinvited when they had to admit that a spouse would be out of town -- this group of people who were regularly insulted for the sake of keeping the dinner table matched has been expanded to include practically everybody.

Perhaps it is time, then, for the givers of dinner parties to weigh the pleasures of a symmetrical table against the pleasures of being hospitable. Miss Manners, who is by no means immune to the joy of a well-ordered table, nevertheless votes for the hospitality.

As a single hostess, you can do your part by entertaining your friends, married, single or other, in whatever state they are available to you. Do not punish them by banishing them from the dinner table to the living room, where the mixture of genders will not be noticed -- simply arrange them around the table in terms of compatibility, rather than sex.

By doing this, and by letting it be known to your married friends that you can enjoy an evening with them without their having to provide you with a potential sexual partner, Miss Manners hopes you will be an example to all.