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Thirty years ago, formal wedding invitations were worded in the traditional “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Harris Martin request the honour of your presence…” way. There were few complications. Nor was there controversy about response cards. Everyone knew that wedding invitations were acknowledged, instead, by hand writing a standard reply on plain stationery.

But that was yesterday.

Today’s weddings often come with family arrangements confusing enough to send even the most seasoned etiquette expert scrambling for proper wording. And the handwritten response is becoming an endangered species. In fact, many young people feel downright perplexed if, when they open an invitation, no response card falls out.

Given all this shifting of the social sands, we called on national and local experts to help us update the rules:

The Response Card Conundrum

When it comes to response cards, “Crane’s Blue Book of Stationery,” long the bible of proper correspondence etiquette, has, thus far, refused to give in. Noting that more and more are being sent, the book states firmly that response cards are socially incorrect. The most recent edition (1989) states that “wedding invitations are properly responded to with a handwritten note, written on a plain, folded letter sheet. Although a large majority of wedding invitations are sold with reply cards, they are still considered impersonal and improper.”

As Crane’s acknowledges, being personal and “correct” means fighting the tide. Even nationally known manners arbiter Letitia Baldrige, author of “The Complete Guide to the New Manners for the ‘90s,” has gone with the flow, albeit reluctantly. “I think reply cards are regrettably acceptable,” she says. “I still prefer a personal note on beautiful stationery, which is really the only correct way to reply to a wedding invitation. But reply cards are a convenient way to relieve the guests of the responsibility of writing back a formal reply, and in today’s fast-track world, they have become almost obligatory.” Supporting evidence: at venerable Down Engravers and Stationers, the old-line Baltimore stationery store that has engraved invitations for more than 150 years, some 70 percent of the store’s wedding customers today use reply cards.

Given that the bottom line of etiquette should always be to put others at ease, you could argue that, for some guests, it’s impolite not to enclose a card. Many young people simply don’t know how to do the right thing. Fern Schwartzberg, a co-owner of Papers Plus at the Festival at Woodholme, says she and her staff frequently get calls from people who are unsure about how to respond to a formal invitation and want the stationer’s advice. “What is important is that they do respond in some way, and not just ignore the invitation because they don’t know the proper thing to do. If they are uncomfortable writing the traditional response, we encourage them to write a short, personal reply. Either response is lovely and perfectly acceptable.”

Response cards should match the invitation in color and printing style. If the invitation is engraved, the reply cards should be engraved, too. The wording on a reply card is very simple and direct; any good stationer can help with it.

A pre-addressed return envelope is included. Usually, the envelope is stamped, as well. But Baldrige says stamping isn’t required. “You have already gone beyond what is necessary when you enclose reply cards for the convenience of your guests. You don’t need to coddle them further by stamping the envelope.”

If you receive a reply card in an invitation, you should respond without delay, listing only people who will be attending the wedding. “If you must send regrets,” says Ronnie Mens, operations manager at Downs, “tuck in a personal note, written on plain, but fine stationery, explaining why you can’t attend.” Etiquette columnist Judith Martin, in her book “Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium,” says you can also “ignore the horrid card and answer the invitation properly” with a formal handwritten reply.

Unfortunately, with or without reply cards, some people still don’t respond to wedding invitations. They should be dealt with unmercifully, says Baldrige. “I suggest hiring a high school student to sit down and call each one. She or he should explain that it is essential that the mother of the bride know if the guest plans to attend.” Don’t feel embarrassed about calling. “Guests who don’t respond to wedding invitations should be gone after with a hammer and made to feel guilty.”

Invitations to traditional weddings remain much the same as they have been for decades. Today, as 50 years ago, most brides choose the traditional invitations made from 40-pound-weight ecru or ivory paper that is plan, or designed with a paneled border. Invitations are engraved with black ink, although Baldrige says dark gray is acceptable.

Occasionally an adventurous bride uses a dark green, purple, or blue ink, or selects a contemporary style invitation that is made of handmade papers or layered with white moiré. Mens says that for holiday weddings, a few brides pick Crane’s Christmas invitations – usually white or ivory with engraved holiday motifs, or green or red borders – and have them engraved in green ink. But for the socially “correct,” the traditional, formal invitation, complete with two envelopes and optional tissue paper, is the invite of choice.

The wording of the invitation has had to bend over the years to accommodate the sometimes confused and complicated state of modern families.

The traditional rule of thumb is that the names of the persons doing the inviting are always given on the top line or lines of the invitation. In a traditional wedding, this is, of course the parents of the bride. But wrinkles occur when those parents are separated, divorced, widowed, or remarried; or when brides and grooms are giving their own weddings, or the bride has been divorced or widowed. Schwartzberg remembers one wedding where so many people wanted to be included on the top lines of a wedding invitation that a compromise had to be reached. “We finally ended up writing, The parents of…etc.,” she recalls with a laugh. “That way everyone was included and no one was offended.”

“Invitations to Jewish wedding ceremonies always include the name of the groom’s family,” adds Schwartzberg, “because the Jewish faith sees marriage as not just the union of the couple but the union of the two families.”

Here are other solutions for almost every situation:

Legally separated or divorced parents

The invitations are issued in the name of the parent or relative with whom the bride is living. If this person is the mother of the bride, she should issue the invitation using her full married name – “Mrs. Thomas Garrett Hunt requests…etc.” If the bride is older and living on her own, she may issue the invitation in her name and the groom’s, as in “The honour of presence is requested at the marriage of Elizabeth Allen Hunt to David McLean Young…etc.” If a bride is living with a relative other than her parents, the relationship would be established in the invitation – “Mrs. John William Jones requests…of her niece Elizabeth Allen Hunt…etc.”

As Baldrige states clearly in her “New Manners for the ‘90s,” “the question of who is paying for the wedding is not relevant to the invitations.” For example, if the bride’s parents are divorced and the father is shouldering all wedding expenses, the bride’s mother’s name should still go on the first line of the invitation, the father’s name on the second line (do not use the word “and” between the two names; it implies “married.”) The father’s name may go on the invitation to the reception as “Mr. Thomas Garrett Hunt requests the pleasure of your company at a reception…etc.” or, if he has remarried, “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Garrett Hunt request the pleasure of your company at a reception…etc.”

Even if the groom’s family is picking up the wedding expenses, they should be gracious enough to give the bride’s parents top billing. If you want to include the name of the groom’s family, etiquette experts suggest putting it after the name of the groom as in “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Garrett Hunt request the honour of your presence at the marriage of their daughter Emily to Dr. Daniel Archer Bloom, son of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Aaron Bloom…etc.” or “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Garrett Hunt (line 1) Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Aaron Bloom (line 2) request the honour of your presence at the marriage of Emily Hunt to Dr. Daniel Archer Bloom…etc.”

When the mother has not remarried, her full name – given, maiden and married – goes on the first line; the father’s name on the second.

If the mother has remarried, her name, in its new form, still appears on the first line; the father’s on the second.

As with everything else in life, there are exceptions. For example, if the bride has lived most of her life with her remarried father, and her stepmother has reared her, it would be correct for the invitation to come from the father and his wife. The natural mother would attend the wedding as a guest. Likewise, a bride who has lived with her mother and stepfather could have wording such as “Mr. and Mrs. Gary David Goldberg request the honour…at the marriage of her daughter Rachel Elizabeth Sklar to…etc.”

Widowed parents

The surviving parent issues the invitation, which would include the wording “…of his (or her) daughter…” If the mother of the bride has been widowed, but has remarried, the invitation would say “Mr. and Mrs. James Sutton Howard request the honour of your presence at the marriage of Mrs. Howard’s daughter Sally Jane Jacobs…etc.” Likewise, if the father is a widower, it would read, “Mr. and Mrs. James Sutton Howard request the honour of your presence at the marriage of Mr. Howard’s daughter Sally Jane…etc.”

Bride, or bride and groom giving the wedding

If the bridal couple are covering the wedding expenses on their own, they may still list the bride’s parents as issuing the invitation. If the bride and groom decide to issue their own invitation, the most accepted wording is “Emily Beth Hunt and Dr. Daniel Archer Bloom request the honour of your presence at the marriage on…etc.”

Widowed brides-to-be

A young widow may send out engraved invitations using her parents’ names or in her own name. An older widow may issue the invitations herself, or let her grown children do so. If children do the issuing, the complete name of each child should be on its own line.

Divorced brides-to-be

According to “The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette,” “a divorced woman does not send out engraved wedding invitations, but she may send out engraved reception invitations.” Invitations to the wedding should be made via the telephone or by personal note. (Many divorced brides-to-be are quietly ignoring the engraved-invitations ban and sending them anyway.)

Living together couples

Polite society takes no notice of the living status of the engaged couple. Their wedding invitations follow the same form as those for engaged couples living apart.

Once the issue of who is doing the inviting has been settled, the rest of the wording should fall into place. But there are still some important details to note:

Dates and times are written out in words.

Honor as in “request the honour of your presence…” is spelled with the “ou,” unless you are Anglophobic.
If the wedding ceremony is to be held in a church or synagogue, the correct phrase for the invite is “request the honour of your presence.” If the ceremony is at a club, home, hotel or other establishment, the phrase “request the pleasure of your company” is used. “Request the pleasure of your company” is always used on reception cards.

No nicknames or initials are printed on formal invitations, but you can dispose of a middle name if it causes you to grimace. No abbreviations are used except Jr. and Dr., although it is preferable to spell these words out.

A woman’s title, such as Dr., or words such as Ms. or Miss, are not used if the bride’s parents are issuing the invitation, even though the groom’s title or Mr. is used. A bride issuing her own invitation may include her title.

If all wedding guests are invited to the reception, a separate reception card is not necessary. The wedding invitations would state “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Garrett Hunt request the honour of your presence at the marriage of their daughter Emily to Dr. Daniel Archer Bloom…at twelve o’clock Hunts Methodist Church Riderwood and afterward at Baltimore Country Club, Mays Chapel.”

RSVP and the address for a reply go on the lower left hand corner of the invitation.

If all of this propriety makes your head spin, don’t fret. When you order your invitations, the stationer should have all this information at his or her fingertips and a copy of “Crane’s Blue Book of Stationery” under the counter. And, when all is said and done, etiquette should not cause your anxiety, but relieve anxiety. “I really think the most important consideration in all of this,” adds Mens, “is what is going to make the bride and groom feel the most comfortable.”

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