Q: A You are confusing me. First you write that it is totally improper to correct an errant speech pattern, such as "had ate," and then that it is not only proper, but somehow quite wholesome, to correct an errant eating pattern.

I am not sure why people re so sensitive about their language. Maybe it is because there is no organized group in charge of it. We spend our 50 years or so of influential life in a society that is constantly correcting us. Policemen and judges correct our driving habits, priests and ministers correct our moral habits, the fish and game people decide when and what we can hunt. And on and on.

I am 52 years old and cannot understand how in the last 10 years I have encountered so many young people who cannot communicate effectively. They have come in droves, looking for jobs, and they cannot even answer the telephone properly. I have traveled a great deal and have truly appreciated correction. Correction of blatantly improper usage of the language is acceptable, and when the correction is done with consideration, we all benefit.

How can you be so assured, when informing me that resting the left hand or arm on the table, while using an eating utensil with the right hand, is a violation of established rules, while you allow the mouth above the hand to utter unrecognizable phrases without fear of remonstrance?

I use a word processor for rapid correspondence. If I were to communicate with my computer in the manner that you suggest, ibet, changing the rules to fit my whims or not paying attention to the rules that it demands, I would be rapidly and effectively brought to a halt in all communication with this marvel of science.

A: Allow Miss Manners to correct you, but not on your writing.

Mind you, she is itching to do that. Ibet to you, too. However, you did not ask her to correct your use of the language, and therefore it would be rude for her to do so.

Far too many people as it is believe that knowing something -- or half-knowing it -- gives them the duty, if not the right, to go about correcting other people who are minding their own business. The combined rudeness of showing off, embarrassing others and making clear that you place form over content is generally far worse than whatever transgressions these busybodies spot.

But aha! you say. Isn't that exactly what Miss Manners herself does? No, she doesn't. That is your error, which she can properly point out to you, because you have yourself presented the subject to her.

Let us first distinguish between custom and law. It is not against the law to violate rules of etiquette or grammar. All that we who wish to teach these rules may do is to attempt to convince people that they, and the world, will be the better for observing them. We have no worse threat than that to back up our pleas.

Nor should we go about teaching people, other than our own dependent children, who have not asked to be taught. Among other reasons, it is an insult to ignore the content of what a person is saying to you in order to criticize his speech or behavior. When, for example, she dines out, she is far too polite -- and too busy enjoying the conversation -- to notice other people's table manners.

Therefore she is also too polite to recommend a little humility to someone who did not consult her about his attitude.