You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Don't bother picking up that gauntlet

The Baltimore Sun

For years, dutiful little copy editor that I was, I followed, and enforced, the Associated Press Stylebook’s gauntlet/gantlet distinction.

For those of you to whom this looks cloudy, a gauntlet is a glove, the mailed glove of a knight flung to the ground in a challenge, and a gantlet is a flogging ordeal, in which one is forced to run between two rows of men wielding clubs. Both words are typically used in a figurative sense.

Yesterday on Twitter, Serena Golden invited people to say whether they thought it a useful distinction to maintain, and Benjamin Dreyer, Jan Freeman, Peter Sokolowski, and Mignon Fogarty all agreed that it is a pointless and fussy distinction, Ms. Freeman adding “Glad to know our numbers are swelling. But I won't rest comfortably till @johnemcintyre has joined the cause.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains that though the two words originally had different etymologies, gantlet was long ago absorbed into gauntlet. Jeremy Butterfield in the latest Fowler’s merely says that the ordeal sense “is often spelt gantlet in American English.” A look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows a meager 138 citations of gantlet, with the 768 citations of gauntlet split between the “throwing down” and “running” senses.

H.W. Fowler’s principle in 1926 was that when a useful distinction develops in the language, careful writers and editors will preserve it. The question with gauntlet/gantlet is whether the distinction is useful, and Bryan Garner has bowed to the evidence.

From Garner’s Modern English Usage: “Lexicographers and usage critics—especially American ones—have sought since the 19th century to make a distinction. … The trend, however, is to use gauntlet for all senses. … In fact, though, writers of English have never reserved gantlet for the ordeal. Instead, despite etymological faultiness in conflating two different words—gauntlet (glove) and gantlope (ordeal)—gauntlet has taken over both meanings. One is tempted to resist, as this book did in earlier editions, but empirical evidence now available shows that run the gauntlet outdistances run the gantlet by an 11-to-1 margin and has consistently done so since about 1800. The ‘battle’ was lost before it began.”

I expect to be gathered to my ancestors before the AP Stylebook drops this musty relic, but for my own purposes, and editing, the game is not worth the candle.

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