Do we have to invite him/her/them?

This is (otherwise) Gracious Hospitality talking backstage, where nobody being proposed for the guest list is supposed to hear. The quest to get amiable guests without their awful connections is decidedly ungracious, but Miss Manners realizes that it is often understandable, if rarely permissible.

Desirable people do sometimes make the most undesirable connections. They marry them, they give birth to them, they room with them, they have them as houseguests, or they met them last week and cannot bear to be separated.

So -- can the host manage to separate them for a few hours?

Oddly enough, the cases in which the hosts most long to do this are when the connections are their very own. They are giving a family holiday party or holding a ceremonial event such as a wedding and remember how little they care for certain of their relatives. Can they invite the uncle who hands out checks but not the one who hands out opinions? Can they make sure the brother's wife doesn't assume that her children are included? Can they let the sister who disciplines her children bring them and exclude the children of the sister who believes in not inhibiting them? Can they make Grandpa agree to leave his new lady friend home?

Keeping family members away from family occasions is a drastic notion that requires drastic measures. And Miss Manners issues a stern reminder that there is no second-class category by which in-laws and stepchildren are optional. Personal preferences do not count, although you need not invite those with whom you have had major feuds.

Sometimes limitations may be imposed, provided that you make no exceptions. No second cousins or no children under 10, for example. Or you can downplay the event -- "Yes, some people did drop by, but it was not really a birthday party," "We eloped on the spur of the moment and only took along the siblings who lived nearby" -- but you have to be sure the story will stick.

Common to all social occasions is the question of whether half a couple may be invited. Considering that we no longer know what makes a couple, this is a tricky problem.

Marriage is a sure qualifier, which is why those gold diggers and freeloaders who forced their way into the family get to accompany the blood relatives. So, now, is para-marriage. People who are living together in romantic partnership must also be treated as a social unit.

This means that love-one-can't-stand-the-other friendships are pretty much confined to weekday lunches. That is also a good time to see people with un-enchanting children, although children do not have to be invited to events designated as grown-up. Nor do dates or houseguests.

There are polite answers other than "Of course" to "May I bring . . . ?" or even "I'll be bringing . . ." These answers all start with "Oh, I'm so sorry, but . . . " and end with "But I'd love to see him/her/them on another occasion." In between are "I'm afraid it's a grown-up party" or "I don't really have room for more." Hosts, as well as guests, have to know when to decline.

Dear Miss Manners:

With the smoking bans in restaurants now, what is the proper etiquette for those who smoke and those who have been left at the table? I do not have a problem with those who smoke getting up (between courses) to go outside to smoke, but recently I was chastised for continuing to eat when the next course was served and they weren't back. Should I have let my food get cold till they returned?

If the smokers weren't back, you must be telling Miss Manners that a nonsmoker chastised you, declaring that it would be rude not to sit there with your hands in your laps to give the smokers time to enjoy their cigarettes.

Does such a person exist? In any case, no such rule exists. If eating had to be suspended mid-meal whenever a guest excused herself from the table for whatever purpose, dinner table conversation would soon deteriorate to the level of "Do you think she fell in?"

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

(c) 2004, Judith Martin