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

I'm throwing down again

The Baltimore Sun

If you have been following this blog, you know that I am not one of the I-learned-it-once-and-it’s-forever-true editors.

In June 2007 I posted that I favored maintaining the gauntlet/gantlet distinction in the Associated Press Stylebook­­—that a gauntlet is a glove thrown down as a challenge and a gantlet is a flogging ordeal, even though the history of the two words is muddy.

Last month I posted that it is time, past time, to abandon the distinction.

Today on Twitter @CorruptionWire asked, “Is it pretentious to use ‘gantlet’ when everyone knows what ‘gauntlet’ means?” And @suellentrop replied: “I see the argument but don’t mind puzzling readers with the more correct usage. (I realize descriptivists would say both are correct, so I say more correct.)”

I have reached that stage in life as an editor when hearing words like “correct” and “proper” sets my teeth on edge. So let’s look at the record.

Rather than quote a page of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, I’ll give you its summary of the historic record of gauntlet/gantlet: “Gauntlet and gantlet are not themselves etymologically distinct—they are spelling variations, pure and simple.”

The attempt to maintain that they are two distinct words with two distinct meanings has been an effort by various authorities on usage to tidy up the language. And they have failed.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary’s entry on gantlet reads, “US spelling of GAUNTLET.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, The New Oxford American Dictionary, and The American Heritage Dictionary all list gantlet as a variant spelling of gauntlet, no more. American Heritage doesn’t even bother with a usage note about the supposed distinction.

Garner’s Modern American Usage, as I mentioned last month, concedes that the attempt to maintain a distinction is futile.

So here’s what it comes down to. Gantlet is still a word in English. It has a meaning. You’re perfectly free to use it. But it’s going to be your personal preference or a dog whistle to a dwindling band of sticklers rather than a “more correct” usage.

Insisting on gantlet is not precision; it is affectation.

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