‘put away the table for dinner’

I’ve written a number of posts on the topic of one of the ‘wrong’ answers to a test question being at least partly right. Last week’s chapter included the topic of housework, and one of the housework tasks was ‘lay the table’. I suspect that very few people in English-speaking countries actually lay the table every day, only for special occasions or maybe Sunday lunch if that’s a fixture in the house. (People who only eat tv dinners wouldn’t ever lay the table. In my last year in Korea, I ate at my office desk, reading, viewing or listening to something on the computer.)

During the revision activity one sentence was something like ‘Please ____ the table for dinner’, with two of the choices being ‘lay’ and ‘put away’. A Korean student chose ‘put away’. I suddenly thought about traditional Korean tables, which look like this:


Older tables had/have fixed legs, but modern tables have foldable legs and the table can be put away in a cupboard or other storage space. The Korean student had obviously interpreted ‘the table for dinner’ as ‘the table from which we have just eaten dinner’, so putting it away is a valid choice. In English, ‘the table for dinner’ is ‘the table from which we will soon eat dinner’. In English, the command for putting away a foldable table would be ‘Please put away the table’.

Eating at these foldable tables is highly efficient – except for foreigners with bad backs. For Korean New Year (Jan-Feb) and Thanksgiving (Sep-Oct), my wife’s family could fit 15-20 adults and older children around two of these tables, with younger children coming and going and the foreigner with a bad back perched on the couch. Just as well chopsticks gave me extra reach.

By the way, Google Ngrams shows that ‘set the table’ is far more common than ‘lay the table’, especially so in AmEng, but even now in BrEng.


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