Dining Etiquette Series – That Little Place Card



“Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.”
~ W.H. Auden

Whatever one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century meant by these words, to most people their names are like poetry and music to their ears. And that is the reason when printing or lettering place cards, whether they are for a formal or informal affair, names must be spelled correctly. No mistakes or typos are permitted or excused. Great care must be taken when preparing these personalized accouterments to the dining table. Place cards are commonly used when there are eight or more guests. I love place cards, as they add another dimension to a formal or festive table, and people love to see their names as much as they love to hear them.

Place Card Styles  

For formal occasions, including formal weddings and other black-tie affairs, place cards come in sturdy, elegant paper stock in white or ivory and delicately bordered in gold, silver or a theme color. They come in two traditional styles, either flat or folded and measuring roughly 2 ½ X 3 /12 inches.

The former lay flat on the table near the place setting, on the napkin or in the center of the charger (service plate); or they can be placed in a small holder like the one pictured in the graphic above. (As you can see from the graphic, place cards may also be used as general “reserved” cards.)

The latter style may be folded in half to stand up on its own and placed on the table near the charger or placed directly on it.

For less formal gatherings, especially business events, very popular are the larger folded cards, called “tent” cards because they resemble a tent; these tent cards frequently display the company’s or sponsor’s logo, but they can also be plain, or come in colors that complement the company’s or theme of the gathering. For private social parties, you can use any type of creative place cards that fit in with the theme of your party. Such place cards can be arranged cleverly anywhere within the place settings.

Place Card Names   

Traditionally, formal place cards were hand written in calligraphy using black ink, and that is still the most elegant way; for this approach you would use the traditional cards, such as those carried by Tiffany & Co. and Crane & Co. However, in our modern age of the computer, many businesses and individuals use the computer-printed versions that are acceptable and can be purchased at office supply stores and for which there are computer applications; some computer-printing looks close, but certainly not identical, to real calligraphy and can produce a clean bold typeface that is easy to read.

These writing and printing approaches apply to both the flat and folded place cards. Note that the folded place cards are lettered on one side only, facing the dinner guest.

For formal occasions, only the title and last name of the guest should be on the place card; the exception would be if you have two people of the same gender and with the same last names attending:

  • Ms. Andrews
  • Mr. Matthew Johnson
  • Mr. Reginald Johnson
  • Mrs. Bingham
  • Dr. Leonard
  • General Cooper
  • Senator Smith

For business events, the tent cards usually display a guest’s full name on both sides to facilitate networking around the table, as well as for ease of finding one’s place. I suggest that for clarification you include honorifics and official titles, such as “Dr.” and “Senator.”

  • Kathryn R. Andrews
  • Matthew Johnson
  • Linda A. Bingham
  • Dr. Benjamin Leonard
  • Lieutenant (or Lt.) Ronald O. Cooper
  • Senator Sandra Smith

For state dinners at The White House, the President’s place card does not include his name but just says, “The President.” Similarly, a dinner at the Governor’s mansion, Governor’s place card will indicate, “The Governor.” Former officials may still use their old titles for life, as a courtesy; for example, “President Clinton,” or “Governor Whitman,” and should be used on their place cards.

For informal dinner parties, names may be written with first and last names, first names only or even nicknames, and should be imaginative and fun.

Other than making sure they are spelled correctly and contain the correct titles, place cards should be consistent; for example, avoid listing one card with a first and last name and another with only a first or last name. Stick with all formal or all casual, but don’t mix styles.

No Switching, Please 

It’s important to remember that guests should not switch name cards at a private dinner party, wedding or any other formal event. The hosts have given thought and taken pains to arrange the seating in a particular way and that should be honored. In addition to following protocol, there are personalities and special situations that might be known only to the host; disrupting the host’s seating arrangement could be embarrassing to catastrophic, and could damage your reputation and result in your not being invited to other events. The same holds true at informal and casual events; most likely if the host is a close friend she will not mind your making a switch, but it’s still annoying and impolite to ask. Think how you would feel if someone tampered with your place card, or you were the host of the party and a guest tinkered with your carefully organized place cards.

If you know the host(s) well, there might be the following exceptions:

(1) If you notice that a real error has been made (you or someone else is sitting next to an ex-significant other or two people who do not get along have been seated next to each other), you may alert the host. However, once people begin taking their seats, it’s really too late to make any changes and it’s best to keep quiet and make the best of the situation.

(2) Prior to the event, you might be able to request to be seated at a particular table. But, you must respond graciously and with good humor if you cannot be accommodated.

These two situations, however, should be the extent of any guest involvement in the seating arrangement!

Meanwhile, appreciate that little card with your name on it! A lot has gone into making it special.

Until next time,


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