Off the Wrack

The difference between “rack” and “wrack” is a wreck

One news article said: “Compensation is coming under greater scrutiny since the world’s biggest financial companies wracked up almost $1.6 trillion of losses and write-downs.” Another, about a beloved pet going into surgery, said: “It was a nerve-wracking day of waiting for the phone to ring and my heart pounding every time it did.”

Wrong and wrong. But the second is less wrong than it used to be.

In the first case, the losses are being “racked” up. Usually the phrase “to rack up” is used in a positive sense, as in “the pitcher racked up his 20th victory of the season,” though it can also be used in a negative sense (“she really racked up her face in that wreck”). But that use of “rack” is very far removed from “wrack,” which basically means “destroyed” and has no positive connotations.

In the second case, perhaps the most common misuse of “wrack,” the pet owner’s nerves were being stretched to the breaking point. That should have been the clue that the correct word was “nerve-racking.” If the pet owner had actually had a nervous breakdown, then perhaps it would have been correct to use “wrack.”

One way of remembering the difference is to associate “rack” with “torture” (as in “the rack”) and “wrack” with “wreck.” Something that is “racked” is stretched to the limits, but not destroyed—as former vice president Dick Cheney might say, if torture results in death, it has failed its purpose. Something that is “wracked” is effectively destroyed.

Here are some correct usages of “wrack”: “Since 1996, the Congo has been wracked with warfare and civil unrest that has left more than 5 million dead by some counts, mainly from disease and starvation.” “The government in Kabul, despite a strong start with democratic elections in 2004, is wracked with corruption and has lost control of much of the country’s south to Taliban militants.”

In perspective, it is obvious that “wrack” should be reserved for serious situations. Or, as Bryan A. Garner puts it in the just-released third edition of Modern American Usage, “writers who aren’t careful about these words will torture their readers and end up dashed on the rocks.” (By the way, the correct phrase is “wrack and ruin,” not “rack and ruin” or “wreck and ruin.”)

To be fair, many “nerve-racking” situations are pretty serious, and there’s sometimes a pretty thin line between “racked” and “wracked.” Before too long, the distinction may disappear. Luckily, Garner now provides a “Language-Change Index,” whose purpose is “to measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations have become.” Stage 1 is “rejected” usage, and Stage 5 is “fully accepted.” “Wrack” for “rack” is at Stage 3, “widespread but …”

Only two stages to go. Those hoping for full acceptance should also hope that nothing “wracks” the change.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.