Q. I believe it rude to question a lady's unmarried state (and I have no interest in such data). I am a retired, unmarried male. I had a professional public-service career, and I enjoy a variety of group activities.

For the past 30 years, ladies who deem themselves cultured and refined have considered it acceptable to ask me, "Why is it that you never got married?" Often they add, "You seem like such a nice person." Unmarried people are not nice?

I've mumbled trivial responses such as "Oh, the right girl never came along." Occasionally I've tried to explain that 25 percent of our adult population is single. Sometimes I've asked, "What do you have in mind?" I've considered stating that I like big shaggy dogs.

Once I decided to play a game and answered, "Actually, I was injured in the war."

The lady leaned forward and asked, "How do you mean?"

I said, "It's quite personal."

"Oh," she continued. "Lots of ladies wouldn't object to that at all. Really."

I cannot envision myself criticizing another person's appearance. However, many ladies seem eager to volunteer that they consider my trouser length incorrect, my tie inappropriate, my jacket wrong, my neat beard unacceptable. No male has ever questioned or criticized me in such a way.

Are manners for men and women opposite?

How do you recommend single people respond to "Why haven't you ever gotten married?"

A. It seems to Miss Manners that you are doing very well in coming up with answers to such intrusive remarks and questions. The only thing she can add is an explanation of what is really going on here. It is not the same thing as when one's relatives or married people rudely make such inquiries.

You are being courted. It is being done awkwardly and offensively, and Miss Manners does not require you to refrain from gently defending yourself, but that is what is happening. The question of why you are not married is an inquiry into whether you might be available, and the criticisms of your clothes and beard are offers to fuss over your appearance as an act of affection.

For what it is worth, ladies sometimes receive this treatment, too. "How come a purty thing like you isn't married?" is intended as courtship and differs from the common "Do you have any prospects?" which, while just as unpleasant, is pure nosiness.

Q. Etiquette books mention the talk a gentleman has with his future father-in-law. What happens when there is no prospective father-in-law or mother-in-law (both are deceased)? I know of no godparents or guardians in the lady's family. The nearest living relatives are an older sister and an older brother, and their spouses.

A. As charmed as Miss Manners is by such quaint customs, she cannot tell you how to ask a deceased gentleman's permission to marry his daughter.

One does not look beyond the natural substitutes to find just anyone to fit the role, any more than a bride should scour the town for some casual acquaintance to fill the father role of giving her away.

Miss Manners suggests that you register your goodwill in this matter by telling the lady herself that you hope you would have had the approval of her parents. If you wish to bolster this with the traditional pledge of how well you are planning to provide for her in the event of your untimely death, no doubt the lady will be pleased to hear it.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.