Running the Gamut and Running the Gauntlet

background image 51

Two frequently confused expressions are “to run the gamut” and “to run the gauntlet.”

Gamut originated as a medieval musical term. The word is still used to mean “the full range of notes that a voice or instrument can produce.” Figuratively, gamut means “the full range or scope of something.” For example, a person might “run the gamut of emotions from rage to despair.”

Gauntlet derives from the French word for glove: gant. In the Middle Ages, a gauntlet was a reinforced glove, usually made of leather, covered with plates of steel.

A medieval custom gave rise to figurative expressions still used in modern English: one knight would challenge another by throwing down one of his gauntlets. His opponent, if willing to fight, would pick up the gauntlet. From this custom derive the expressions “to cast the gauntlet,” “to fling down the gauntlet,” and “to throw down the gauntlet,” meaning, “to issue a challenge.” Likewise, modern speakers use the expression “to take up the gauntlet,” meaning “to accept a challenge.”

The word gauntlet in the expression “to run the gauntlet” has nothing to do with the word for glove. It’s a corrupted form of the Swedish word gatlopp, which was borrowed into English with the meaning “military punishment in which the offender runs between rows of men who beat him in passing.”

Early spellings of gatlopp in English were gantelope and gantlope. At the same time, gauntlet had the variant spellings gantelet and gantlet. Not surprisingly, the words came to be confused with one another: “to run the gantlope” became “to run the gantlet.” and eventually, “to run the gauntlet.”

Purists object to the spelling gauntlet in the expression “to run the gauntlet.” Some stylebooks, notably Chicago and AP, support gantlet, but Paul Brians (Common Errors in English Usage), disposes of the gantlet version as a variant.

On the Ngram Viewer chart beginning with 1800, “to run the gauntlet” is by far the more common form. The earliest citation of “to run the gauntlet” in the OED is dated 1676.

Bottom line: “To run the gauntlet” is the more common version of the expression that means, “to run past a row of people who are trying to hurt you.” It can be used either literally or figuratively:

Political prisoners in Tehran’s Evin prison have allegedly been forced to run a gauntlet of armed guards armed with batons.

Kasich, if he is to run a successful race for president, will have to run the gauntlet of the Republican primaries first.

What is not acceptable is mixing up “running the gauntlet” with “running the gamut.”

The following examples are from printed books. The first two are from self-published novels, but the third—O tempora, O mores—is from a serious nonfiction book published by Penguin:

INCORRECT: His emotions ran the gauntlet from calm to sobbing quietly. Mike Holst, The Last Trip Down the Mountain, iUniverse, 2011.
CORRECT : His emotions ran the gamut from calm to sobbing quietly. 

INCORRECT: Their experiences ran the gauntlet from “sadistic preferential” pedophiles, to serial killers who were depressive or enraged… Bill Riveron, The Trojan Killer, AuthorHouse, 2011.
CORRECT : Their experiences ran the gamut from “sadistic preferential” pedophiles, to serial killers who were depressive or enraged…

INCORRECT: Treatment ran the gauntlet from kindness to torture. Deborah J. Swift, The Tin Ticket, Penguin, 2010
CORRECT : Treatment ran the gamut from kindness to torture.

If an adverbial phrase follows “to run the gauntlet,” the most usual choices for the preposition to introduce it are past or through:

Farragut ran the gauntlet past Vicksburg’s guns 28 June.

Men fell back on either side so that he ran the gauntlet through their ranks.


Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

8 thoughts on “Running the Gamut and Running the Gauntlet”

  1. Interesting piece.

    Actually, I can’t recall seeing the phrase ” run the gamut” used.

    I am sure I have only read “run the full gamut”, at least that is the phrase that is at the forefront of my mind.

    However, given your explanation here, it is probably incorrect , since gamut implies ” full” !

  2. Any error in the following example?

    The characters of Mr. Tee whom I used to know has actually ran the gamut from notable to derisison -He is now a liar! Thus, I fling down the gauntlet for him to accept by going back on radio and make correction to all information he gave and aired about me as they are derisive and stigmatic to my personality.

  3. It is interesting that this usage of “gauntlet” had its origin in a confusion of two similar words, “gantlet” for “gantlope”. (In this case, probably a familiar word, “gantlet”, filling in for an unfamiliar one, “gantlope”.) What is happening, now, is that an uncommon but relatively familiar word, “gauntlet” is being substituted for a much more unfamiliar word, “gamut”. Mistakes of today become the usages of tomorrow. Not that I disagree with the conclusion of this article (“What is not acceptable is mixing up ‘running the gauntlet’ with ‘running the gamut.'”) I am all in favor of delaying the inevitable decay as long as possible.

  4. Mistakes of today become the usages of tomorrow.
    Yes, and there is no reason for that to be an acceptable state of affairs. Ignorance is rarely a good reason for change. Supposedly, today the general population is not illiterate and we have thousands of alleged professionals writing, editing, and generally using language. So such sources of “evolution” are no longer legitimate. Writers and educated users should be educating people away from their mistakes (cf DWT), not embracing and imitating them.

    If *gantlet* is a historical variant and the “running the…” has no etymological relation to the glove and is indeed simply a product of bad hearing, then it seems perfectly appropriate and advisable to accept it. So:

    “Run the gamut from A to Z.”
    “Throw down the gauntlet in challenge.”
    “Run the gantlet of pin of pen-pricks for misusing gauntlet and gamut.”

  5. Interesting piece.
    Strangely , I can’t recall seeing the phrase ” run the gamut” used.

    I am sure I have only read “run the full gamut”, at least that is the phrase that is at the forefront of my mind.

    However, given your explanation here, it is probably is incorrect , since gamut implies ” full” !

  6. I think the networks should have a grammar editor to correct the errors of
    Newscasters, TV hosts, etc.

    Also, is “run the gantlet” ultimately correct?

  7. Thank you, I found my way here this evening after experiencing similar “issues” with these two phrases.

    I do wonder if there was a deliberate mistake thrown in as we’ve spent an otherwise enlightening few hours in the company of an esteemed author and wordsmith.

    As a professional Session Musician, Performer, Composer and Orchestrator the term “run the gamut” is part of everyday conversation and vocabulary. To be quite honest if you are not running the gamut each time you rehearse, perform, compose or orchestrate then you are not giving your whole self to the task.

    As it was a small group of no more than ten of us, the format of his presentation was more like an open discussion. It was during this that the author asked me, “Did I run the gauntlet whilst performing?” I couldn’t resist answering him, “Yes, we do run the gauntlet often. If we get 2 notes wrong during a performance we are subjected to running between 4 rows of musical directors each beating us rather rhythmically with their batons.”

    Unfortunately my attempt at humour was met with a couple of sharp intakes of breath and has resulted in a sudden drop new Musicians joining UK Orchestras.

    If it doesn’t pick up soon, I have a sneaking suspicion that the next person to face running the gauntlet will be myself and going from experience, should one survive the lunging Batons, Bows, Drumsticks and anything pointy. The final round will be “for the high jump.”

Leave a Comment