lay the table / set the table

Tonight Better Half asked me to lay the table. I went to get plates, then noticed that he'd already filled plates for us. Which led to a conversation about which things the 'layer of the table' was responsible for, which could almost be seen as a dialectal conversation.

My reasoning: I grew up with the job of setting the table, BH grew up laying the table. I was responsible for putting down plates, silverware (AmE), glasses, placemats and napkins. BH says that he just put down cutlery (BrE). I don't actually believe him, having been involved in table-laying exercises at his mother's house where the plates have gone down with the cutlery on the placemats, but he did say "We never had napkins. Sometimes we had kitchen towel" (AmE paper towel).

It's not unusual for napkins not to be supplied at meals served in people's homes here. In the US, it may just be paper towels, but you are generally given something to wipe your mouth with. This may be a generational thing--it's my impression that "war babies" are less likely to have something on the table for mouth-wiping.

But stranger still for an American dining in English homes is being served a meal without a drink. I eat a lot of meals in a lot of different people's homes because of the Scrabble team I'm on. While one's always offered tea after the meal, it's not uncommon to be offered nothing liquid during it. (This always happens at my team's host's house. He has in the past pronounced it strange that I drink as much as I do. I've pronounced it strange that he hasn't had kidney failure yet.) Again, this is something that I associate more with the post-war generation, so may have its roots in necessary frugality.

We all know that Americans consume more than other cultures, right down to paper napkins and milk (the staple in my house) with dinner. But as the post-war generation is replaced by people who haven't known the same privations, the rates of consumption rise in the UK as well. One can only hope that the more voluntary 'green' ethos takes hold as strongly as the effects of involuntary rationing did.

But to get back to the language...why do we set or lay a table? Despite the different words in the two dialects, they are grammatically odd in the same way, with the direct object table not corresponding to the thing that is being moved. Usually if you set or lay a thing, it involves putting it down. In the case of the table, it's already in position, and that which is being moved is left unmentioned. We often leave out mentioning semantic arguments (i.e. things involved in the action) if they're clearly recoverable from the context. For example, we don't bother to say "Did you eat food yet?", we say "Did you eat yet?"

So, do we not mention the 'what' that needs to go on the table because it is predictable in the context? On the contrary, if you're preparing to eat a meal, the table is surely more contextually stable (and thus not needing mention) than what goes on it. For instance, if you're eating soup, you need to lay/set the table differently than if you're eating sushi, and if you're eating breakfast you might put down different things than if you were having lunch. So, why don't we leave out the table and instead say "Would you set/lay the dishes?"

Perhaps it's because there is no good term to cover that which goes on the table (it's not just dishes, it's also linen and cutlery), and also because we do have a sense of doing something to the table when we prepare it for a meal. But still--why then do we use verbs that have to do with moving something (usually represented by the direct object--but not here)? Why don't we say "would you ready the table?" or "would you prepare the table?"

Wonder about things like this too long and one works up an appetite...


  1. why then do we use verbs that have to do with moving something (usually represented by the direct object--but not here)? Why don't we say "would you ready the table?" or "would you prepare the table?"

    As an Australian who grew up setting the table, I don't think of the word "set" as indicating movement (I would never say "set that plate on the table" but rather "put that plate on the table"). So for me, the word set in "set the table" has the sense of "set up" i.e. prepare.

  2. Whether you thought of it as meaning that is a slightly different question than whether it originally meant that, though. I meant why do 'we' say it in a more historical sense. I never thought of it as being about moving the table either, until I started thinking about what set means in other contexts...

  3. Hi there,
    I'm new to your site and greatly enjoying browsing around, hence this comment to an oldish thread: 'kitchen towel' is intelligible to me as a BrE speaker, but I would never use it and can't in fact remember having heard it. It's usually 'kitchen roll' or sometimes 'kitchen paper' in my experience. 'Paper towel(s)' to me is (are) what you dry your hands on in a public toilet - tearing a piece off a roll if singular, or pulling one flat, folded one from the bottom of a stack in a dispenser if plural.

  4. Yes, you're correct that kitchen roll is more normal BrE. (Along with loo roll = AmE toilet paper.) I expect that Better Half is somewhat Americani{s/z}ed, especially when he talks to me. He has lived in the US some, and is one of the few British people who says bathroom when he means toilet.

    Thanks for pointing out this hybrid term.

  5. I was interested that you used “napkin” rather than “serviette” to describe the cloth placed at each place setting to wipe your hands and mouth. The former word was used by the upper classes and the second adopted by the aspiring middle classes. Simularily the upper classes used the word “lavatory” and the lower orders “toilet “ although nowadays “loo” seems to be universal. French had been the language of the Court and the ruling classes would be fairly fluent in its use, but Napoleonic Wars brought about an aversion to anything French, but presumably this did not filter down the social scale! Nancy Mitford covered this linguistic divide in “U and non-U”. I find it amusing that the lingua franca is now English.

  6. The word serviette is unknown in AmE, and it takes a great effort of mind to use it instead of napkin.

  7. I'm not sure why not serving drinks with meals would be associated with frugality. Surely tap water is as frugal as it gets? I never have a meal without a glass of water, which is how I was raised (Canadian). Fancier meals get wine of course. Fast-food type meals get pop.

  8. I believe there was a time the table was really set/layed for the meal and dismantled afterwards, consisting of trestles and a tabletop.

  9. Being British I can only offer my advice from experience.
    When we ate at my nan's as children, we always ate at the dinner and always to silver service.
    We were generally berated from using the term serviette as this was more often used in regards to a paper napkin used at picnics or fast food restaurant's.
    We also always had a drink with a meal, as do most British families.

    And we lay the table, use toilet paper, clean up spills with kitchen paper, visit the lavatory or bathroom (bathroom usually in restaurant's, or if the sink is in the same room as the toilet). Dry our pots with a kitchen towel.

    Some people set a table with plates and allow people to help themselves to servings, or servings are made at the table.

    More commonly, in my experience, we lay the table (cutlery,napkins, glasses) then the food is taken to the table on the plate.
    Being an anal retentive cook I would absolutely hate for people to have to scoop food out on to plates.

  10. Hi,
    I have question which has been in debating for the past couple of weeks.
    Why do some people have their table set for dinner at all time? even if they are not dinning?
    I think this is tacky..please let me know what you all think out there and is there a reason why this is being done?
    i can be reached at
    Thanks !!!

  11. June, do you really think it's wise to leave your e-mail address on a blog like this?

    I don't know anyone who leaves their table set all the time, so I can't answer your question--the topic is kind of outside what I do here...

  12. Sorry to ask stupid question but what exactly is the difference between "lay a table" and "set a table"? Is it American English v. British English? Or something else?

  13. Yes, the difference is BrE (lay) vs. AmE (set). That's the theme of this blog...

  14. Thanks. It is surely obvious for you, but it's not so obvious for many people as I have been asking that question many times (in UK) and everyone have been telling me there is no difference at all. Thank you for your help.

  15. 1. Transitivity: A set of properties that kind of describe some of what you talk about here. Do you think that the affectedness of patient (table in this case) is strong enough to have I laid the table with cutlery? That sounds weird to me (unless with cutlery has contrastive stress). Do you think that the (in)definiteness of those items that are put onto the table is a good way to talk about your intuition about there being no cover term for those items? Would be interesting if definiteness was important in this "alternation".

    2. Aforementioned items: In my family, there exist two parallel sets of practices for laying the table. The more common includes only laying out cutlery, the less common is a more expansive role, which includes cutlery, mats to protect the table from heated serving dishes, wine glasses and paper napkins. Plates are put on the table only if all the diners are to be allowed to serve themselves (rare). Somewhat peculiarly, I think that once the table is laid, the places are set (but not laid).

    3. Drinks: I have the opposite experience with drinks at dinner. UK = mandatory drinks, unless soup is all we are having; US = infrequently drink, more frequent if something other than water is available, mandatory milk, OJ and coffee at my wife's paternal grandparents' breakfasts (and grits...).

  16. Hi Peter,

    1. I don't have the same intuition as you do about 'I laid/set the table with cutlery' (sounds fine to me with or without contrastive stress) I can't say that I can find an answer there.

    2. Interesting.

    3. I think there are probably regional/class/generational variations at work here...but I don't know what they all are!

  17. As a child growing up in England just after the war we always had drinks on the table. The drink was always tea. Cups, saucers, tea pot (with tea cosey) sugar and milk jug accompanied every single meal. This happened in every home I went to right up until the late 1960s.

  18. I agree with anon in that "set" probably comes from "set up," as in "set up (arrange) the table."

  19. I'm surprised that "set the table" is seen as American usage. It's what I grew up saying, though "lay the table" is a perfectly familiar expression too.
    Kate (Derby, UK)

  20. I know this is an old discussion, but all the same:

    I think the etymology of the words 'lay' and 'set' stems from the action of 'LAYing out' the table (as you would a page with text), i.e. placing something according to a pattern or system, or 'SETting up' something, i.e. preparing it for use.

    Then again, I might be totally wrong here. :-)

  21. I know I'm happening on this long after you first posted the thought, so perhaps you've changed your view, but I'm not sure I understand why you would find (or at least would have found) it remarkable that in setting the table, you're moving something other than the table. I've always thought of it in the same context as "set the timer," "set the ignition timing," "set one's expectations," etc., as meaning essentially "cause to be in an appropriate state." So if you are baking a cake, you set the timer before you put it in the oven and you set the table before you serve it to your guests. (In each case, the antecedent of "it" is the cake, not the timer or the table.) The first "set" puts the timer in a condition such that it will sound when you want it to, and the second puts the table in a condition such that it will appear as you want it to when your guests sit down.

    I, a New Yorker, understand "set" in the sense of "put down," but wouldn't normally use it except with large, heavy objects that would thereafter be hard to move. (Perhaps this is based on the similarity of "settle" -- you can set something on a table if, once there, it settles into place.) Even then, though, I would probably follow it with "down." So, for example, I might tell a moving team carrying a heavy piece of furniture that they could just set it down in the corner. "Set," if used with something small and light, would sound like a regionalism to me. Perhaps someone in the South might say they've set a stapler on a desk or a purse/pocketbook/handbag (q.v.) on a shelf, but it wouldn't sound nearly as natural to me as setting the table.

  22. Everything about language is remarkable, Anonymous.

  23. This is speculation, but is it possible that table here refers to the meal itself, in the same sense as board refers to food in "room and board"?

  24. The first time I realised how different US English could be was when talking to an American young woman (we would have said 'girl' back then) who had been teaching English in Tunisia with a British textbook. She had found lay the table hilarious, presumably seeing it as some weird sexual fetish.

    As for Albert Welch's suggestion, if it ever meant 'lay out the meal' it certainly doesn't now, and it didn't when I was a little boy in the 1940s. We lay the table before there's anybody sitting there and before we put any food on it.

  25. Coming very late to this party, I would never set/lay the table with plates for a hot meal, as being British I expect the plates to be heated and brought out to be used warm.
    Nothing to do with linguistics, just part of the British obsession with hot food and drink; even my partner’s French relatives don’t worry about hot plates.
    But both my French OH and I were brought up with cloth napkins, Each family member had a personal napkin ring to identify their napkin for the next meal; I have a collection of French and English silver rings, given as presents to new babies in both families. I am bemused by the fashion for sets of six identical ones, as they seem to me impractical.
    Great blog David!

  26. (BrE, 60+, middle-class)
    I am inclined to agree with a couple of previous posts - 'the table' is not a physical table but a 'setting' at which we eat. Thus we may lay out the appropriate table settings for use at each meal. Cutlery is sold in multiples of 'place settings'.
    We sometimes use the phrase 'at table', in the context of the situation during dinner - 'Don't discuss sex, politics or money at table; always use a napkin at table'... it's old-fashioned and has almost been replaced by 'at dinner/ at the table' for literal-minded listeners.
    Stokey Sue, I'm with you there about napkins - I had to have my own napkin ring (and napkins) when at boarding school. Of course, the very grandest families have clean table linen every day and so may not understand the concept.

  27. In "Code to Zero" British author Ken Follett has his American character in 1958 America 'lay' the table.....I had to look it up!

  28. Jumping in -- this is a pretty old discussion -- but (though I'm neither English nor American) I missed an expression: cutlery is OK, place settings are OK, but what about flatware? Is that outdated?

    1. Hi Petra, please see this post:


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)