Off the rack

Rack is a word with many definitions. By lexicographer Bryan A. Garner’s count, it has nine meanings as a noun and seven as a verb. And while a rack might end up everywhere from your closet to your dinner plate, it is also an instrument of torture 😬

Thus, as a verb, “rack” can mean to torture or stretch, which leads us to two common phrases and another noun and verb with overlapping meanings: wrack. The phrases nerve-racking and rack your brain are often written as “nerve-wracking” and “wrack your brain.” The confusion is understandable, given that “rack” and “wrack” are sometimes used interchangeably. But usage manuals are pretty united on the phrases “nerve-racking” and “rack your brain”: Don’t use the “w.”

A screenshot of a message from Stylebot on Google Chrome that reads: "Rack" and "wrack" are sometimes used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. One of the meanings of "rack" is to stretch violently or torture, while "wrack" means to destroy. So the correct sayings are "nerve-racking" and "rack your brain": "She spent two nerve-racking hours before the interview racking her brain to recall specific examples from her past work that would help her answer the questions she anticipated."

You’ll find more varied advice on how to use “wrack” on its own. Like “rack,” it has quite a few meanings, including both “destruction” and “seaweed.” And fun fact: Those definitions aren’t as far apart as they might seem, as “wrack” evolved from a word meaning “shipwreck.”

Speaking of “wreck,” we’ll cover that word in next week’s Writing Tips post when we discuss another commonly misused phrase. Can you guess what it is?

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