Word Muddle 2: Nerve-Wracking, Nerve-Wrecking, Nerve-Racking?

Another word muddle I'd come across in the course of my editing work that got me scrambling for the dictionary, or dictionaries, was the confusion over "nerve-wracking" and "nerve-wrecking". And then there's "nerve-racking" to contend with. Is this all leaving you in a nervous wreck (not exactly helping there, am I)?

Various forms of spelling have been used by journalists and writers in headlines such as these:

A word muddle that even journos may not get right.

Herein lies the difficulty of rationalizing the correct word to use—rack, wrack and wreck have basically identical definitions!
wrack: severe damage or destruction.
wreck: an action or event, such as a collision, that results in great or total destruction.
rackdestruction; ruin.
It does appear to make perfect sense to use any of the three words after "nerve-" going by these definitions, as they would suggest that one's nerves are in a state of destruction, describing the person's extreme anxiety.

However, let's return to the actual meaning of what "nerve-wrecking/wracking/racking" is supposed to convey:
inflicting great strain or irritation on one's patience, courage, or the like.
That slowly sheds a bit more light. Do any of the three words have other definitions that would fit the "inflicting of great strain"? Bingo!
rack: something that causes great mental or physical agony, or the agony it causes; extreme stress.
The correct word to use is nerve-racking.

By keeping in mind the proper meaning of this word (inflicting great strain on the nerves, and not destroying them), we can safely eliminate "wrecking", which does not carry this meaning in any of its definitions.

But that is not the end. How about "wracking"? This is where things get interesting, and even murky.

The Oxford Dictionary comments:
The relationship between the forms rack and wrack is complicated. The most common noun meaning of rack, "a framework for holding and storing things", is always spelled rack, never wrack. The figurative meanings of the verb, deriving from the type of torture in which someone is stretched on a rack, can, however, be spelled either rack or wrack.
It goes on to say:
When used as a noun, rack is always spelled with an r (a magazine rack). The verb can be spelled rack or wrack, but only when it means "cause great pain to someone".
Not every dictionary agrees on this though. The Chambers Dictionary, for instance, states that "wrack", when used as a verb to mean "causing pain or suffering to someone or something", is "usually regarded as an error". Yet, the same dictionary accepts "wrack" as a proper variant of "rack" when used as a noun to describe the state of destruction.

OK, is there really any point in splitting hairs in this manner? The bottomline is this: using "nerve-racking" is 100 per cent correct. "Nerve-wracking" is generally recognised as a variant, but may not be universally accepted. If you ask me, why settle for anything less than 100 per cent correct and accepted?


Susan May said...

The one that gets me is practice and practise. I recently used it in a blog and I am still not certain I got it right. I find it very nerve-racking because I don't want my blog wrecked and I have spent a long time wracking my brain to work out which one to use. (Sorry I couldn't resist the word play :)

WordyAffairs said...

Hi Susan,

Yep practice/practise is another tricky one! In American English usually "practice" is used throughout without distinction. In British English though, "practice" is used as a noun (eg Practice makes perfect), while "practise" is used as a verb (eg I practise writing everyday). Same with advice/advise. How I remember it is to tell myself that "ice" (as in pract-ice) is a noun, and "is" (as in pract-is-e) is a verb.

Thanks for your comment! Love your blog, happy writing!

Susan May said...

Thank you for those comments. Good adv(ice) which I will remember for the future. You are the Yoda of words or should I say, Of words, you are the Yoda? Thank you for your kind words about my blog and for your comment there. I didn't receive notification of it until today and I didn't realise you had responded to my comment here either or I would have written sooner. Gremlins in the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

I have just read the same discussion on WordForum and the conclusion there was that nerve-wracking is the standard and nerve-racking the deviant. :)

Anonymous said...


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