Fork etiquette

Fork etiquette

Fork etiquette in Western social settings takes two primary forms. The style used mostly in the United States of America, which is sometimes called the "zigzag method" or "American style", differs from the "European" or "Continental" style mostly used in the rest of the western world including Europe and British Commonwealth countries.

American style

The knife is held in the right hand and the fork in the left. Holding food to the plate with the fork tines-down, a single bite-sized piece is cut with the knife. Never cut more than one piece at a time. The knife is then placed on the right edge of the plate (always with the blade facing inward) and the fork transferred to the right hand, with the left hand falling to the lap. The cut piece is then speared (if not already during the cut) or scooped and eaten using the fork in a tines-up orientation. The fork is held in the right hand or put down on the plate while chewing. The fork is then transferred back into the left hand, the right hand picks up the knife, and the process is repeated as necessary. A left-handed consumer can retain the fork in the stronger hand, although the knife is still released. While the position of the hand does not matter as it is placed on the fork while doing so, this is not considered completely proper.

The fork is the utensil of choice, never use a spoon or knife when a fork will suffice.


While cutting, the fork is usually held upside down with the handle along the palm and the index finger pressing down at the neck of the handle. Because most forks have a curve this will point the tines downward into the food.

If the food is very soft or flaky (for example, fish), some choose to disregard the knife entirely, using a fork in their right hand and cutting their food by pressing down with the edge or with the tines of their fork. Sawing at the food in this way is considered bad form. Alternatively, a fish knife can be used, held much like a pen or a scalpel. Such knives are rarely seen in the U.S., but they are used more often in Europe.

The fork can be held with the index finger touching the back of the fork throughout the motion of picking up and putting in the mouth.

European (Continental) style

The European manner is to hold the knife and fork, in the right and left hands respectively, throughout consumption. The hand grasp is also different: in Europe it is considered better manners not to hold a knife or fork as one would hold a pen, but to have the handle running along the palm and extending out to be held by thumb and forefinger. This style is sometimes called 'hidden handle'. This method is also common in Canada and other former parts of the British Empire. In contrast to the American method of using a fork much like a spoon (tines up), the British primarily use the fork with tines facing away from the user (tines down).

The cause of the difference in custom is uncertain. It is believed to have originated because the 17th century American colonists had established themselves before the fork, and any custom of its use, had become widespread in Europe. The implement did not become widespread in Europe (certainly northern Europe) until the 18th century, and was not adopted in the United States until the 19th century. The American use of blunt-ended knives was also a factor.

Placement of forks

Tables are often set with two or more forks, meant to be used for different courses; for example, a salad fork and meat fork. Some institutions wishing to give an impression of high formality set places with many different forks for meals of several courses, although many etiquette authorities regard this as vulgar and prefer that the appropriate cutlery be brought in with each course.

It should not be necessary for the diner to distinguish between types of forks; forks are used in order from outside to inside, with the exception of oyster forks, which are placed on the right-hand side in the bowl of a spoon.

An interesting example of fork etiquette occurs in the film "Pretty Woman," in which Vivian (from a poor background), receives an etiquette lesson from the hotel manager (from a presumably more genteel background), before a fancy dinner party with Edward's upper-class associates.


Further reading

* "From Hand to Mouth, Or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons and Chopsticks, and the Manners to Go with Them" by James Cross Giblin. New York: Crowell, 1987. []

* "The Evolution of Useful Things" by Henry Petroski. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. []

* "The History of Manners" by Norbert Elias. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. []

* "Newport Etiquette & Modern Manners, " by Didi Lorillard, online at

ee also

*Table manners
* "Newport Etiquette & Modern Manners," by Didi Lorillard, online at

External links

* [ American Table Manners] , from CuisineNet

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