"Reply early and win a prize!"

This exhortation was reported to Miss Manners by a gentleman of her acquaintance who found it -- not on the back of a cereal box, but on an otherwise conventionally engraved and worded wedding invitation from respectable friends.

Oh. A new social form. A new version of "The favor of a reply is requested" or "Re'pondez s'il vous plait." No doubt, it will soon catch on and be abbreviated as "R.E.W.P."

A good whiff of smelling salts soon restored Miss Manners, and she was kindly helped up from the floor and into a chair. When she was feeling quite herself again, she reflected that such is the logical outcome of a situation she has long been following with dismay.

Traditionally, social invitations contained no instructions whatsoever about replying. Common sense and common decency so obviously required allowing party givers to know who would attend that it would have been insulting to point this out.

Nearly all guests are, at some time, hosts. How much imagination does it take to realize that when you are giving a dinner or party or wedding you need to know how many people to expect? How much humanity does it require to recognize the callous effect of friends' ignoring your hospitable overtures?

However, it has gotten harder and harder to insult people by assuming they have no manners or consideration. And so the "R.S.V.P." was born -- the discreet reminder in the corner of the invitation that yes, we really do care this time.

Naturally, this also suggested the possibility of social occasions on which the hosts don't care to know who is attending. That is false -- they always care, and nervously add up who is likely to attend.

The new laxness only conceded that it was not worth the effort to get replies for certain types of parties, and so hosts would concentrate their forces on the important ones. The trade-off was a willingness to pay for wasted cocktail-party hors d'oeuvres, if they could get a head count for expensive dinners.

But it wasn't successful, and even more coercion was attempted. The horrible preprinted "R.S.V.P." card, already stamped, was included so the guest wouldn't be taxed with the job of writing. Telephone numbers were supplied for the same reason. Then there was "Regrets only," an oddity that puts the host in the amusing position of assuming that everyone who refuses regrets having to do so.

None of these works, either, as Miss Manners is constantly hearing from desperate hosts. All she can advise them to do is to telephone the people they invited and politely inquire, "We do hope we'll have the pleasure of seeing you next Saturday?"

Miss Manners' confidence that this ploy would produce shame or at least results in the delinquent guests seems to have been unfounded. People who have tried it report back that the supposedly cornered guests reply airily, "Well, we'll try to make it" or "Yes, there's a good chance I'll be able to make it" or "We'll certainly try to stop by."

Why, Miss Manners is given to musing, are people treating their own friends and relatives this way? Are the hosts inadvertently inviting people who secretly hate them or the way they entertain? But in that case, why don't these people just politely refuse the invitations?

She is inclined to think, rather, that there is simply no recognition any more of hospitality as a social contract between guests and hosts, both of whom have their separate obligations. Perhaps selfishness and laziness are factors. Perhaps people are so deluged with pseudo-invitations -- business, commercial, charity and civic functions that seem like parties but involve people without much personal relationship to one another -- that they think of parties as an impersonal opportunity, to be enjoyed or ignored without responsibility.

Or perhaps it is just that they were never taught the manners of observing forms, whether one wants to or not, so that society and its various activities will work.

That bribery is now being attempted in order to force people to answer wedding invitations should not have been a surprise. Miss Manners is only waiting to hear about lawsuits in which hosts will attempt to recover from prospective guests the expense of providing for those who refuse to indicate whether they will attend.

My boyfriend and I are planning on being married in the next year or so. We are not officially engaged. We are interested in knowing the traditions and etiquette of becoming engaged. What does being engaged really mean? Is a ring necessary? How are engagements informally announced?

Whatever jewelers or other interested parties may tell you to the contrary, the only requirement necessary to establish an engagement is an agreement between two people to marry each other.

A secret engagement means that no one else (or only a few hundred close friends who have been enjoined not to tell) is told; "official" means that others are told without being asked not to repeat it. The informal way to announce this is for the couple and their family to go around saying and writing, "You know, we (or "Lucy and Walter, who is such a nice young man") are planning to be married next summer."

There is no end to pleasant traditions available, but these are optional: parental approval, preferably formally requested, rather than demanded; an engagement ring; a newspaper announcement; parties given by relatives or friends, in honor of the couple; showers given by friends, but not relatives; toasts, giggles and kidding; the assembling of personal and household trousseaus; and indulgence by friends and family as the couple bores them senseless with talk of their plans and love. My personal preference about names is to have my mail addressed without an honorific, with my own first name, not my husband's, and then inside to be addressed as "Mrs. Doe." Because I do not indicate "(Mrs.)" at the end of my name in business letters, I usually receive replies from people who do not know me addressed to "Ms." This I tolerate, knowing no alternative.

If you are to make up your own system and not tell people what it is, Miss Manners hardly sees an alternative to toleration.