Drinking depends on time, place, situation and personal characteristics. Patterns and trends in situational drinking norms (subjective levels of acceptable consumption for various situations) for US adults are reported. Results are based on eight comparable normative questions from national household surveys conducted in 1979 (n = 1772), 1984 (n = 5221 including Hispanic and black oversamples) and 1990 (n = 2058). Across years and population subgroups, a correspondence in ordering of situations on acceptability of drinking and of drunkenness was found. There were contrasting secular trends in the acceptability of drunkenness in different situations: drinking "enough to feel the effects" became more acceptable when at home but less acceptable in several other situations, particularly for men at a bar. For a decreasing percentage of respondents of both genders, it remains more acceptable for men than women to drink in bars, but gender norms in such "wetter" situations were converging by 1990. Men remain more accepting of drinking (but not drunkenness) for "dryer" situations such as when driving, but the trend is towards reduced acceptance. Multiple regression models predicting "acceptance of drinking" and "acceptance of drunkenness" scores showed fair stability in explanatory variables over time, with drinking level and conservative Protestant affiliation (drinking) or age (drunkenness) the major contributors.