Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

It’s very convenient that most modern devices will automatically check and even correct our spelling for us. However, this has also led to many people using the wrong word under the wrong context, because it’s not technically a spelling error. Havoc can be roughly defined as absolute disorder, disaster or destruction. If you cry havoc (as in the play Julius Caesar), then you are warning others of this danger. So, should you be writing “wreak havoc” or “reek havoc” if you mean to use the popular idiom meaning to cause a lot of trouble?

To Wreak Is to Cause

The verb to wreak (pronounced as “reek” to rhyme with “meek” or “leak”) means to cause or inflict, typically in the context of causing damage or harm. It has a negative connotation to it. For example, you could say that hunching over a computer keyboard all day will wreak havoc on your back. If you are planning a family road trip, getting a flat tire could wreak havoc on your travel plans.

The most common phrase is to “wreak havoc,” but wreak can still be used under some different contexts too. You could say that a warrior aims to wreak his revenge on the man who murdered his father.

To Reek Is to Stink

And even though the word “reek” is pronounced exactly the same way as “wreak,” it has an entirely different meaning. If you are using the verb form to reek, then you are saying that the subject smells foul. He, she or it stinks of something unpleasant. If Jerry doesn’t take care of personal hygiene, then he probably reeks of bad body odor. A pile of table scraps left out in the hot sun will definitely begin to reek.

That being said, “reek” doesn’t necessarily have to do with smell. An object that reeks could simply be smoking, giving off steam, or otherwise emitting some sort of vapor or fumes. Of course, these fumes might indeed smell quite nasty.

To Wreck Is to Damage

The common idiom is “wreak havoc.” It is important not to confuse this spelling with the word wreck, which is both spelled and pronounced differently. To wreck (rhyming with “neck” or “deck”) is to break, damage or destroy. The collision with the lamp post really wrecked that car. Wreck can also be used as a known to refer to the utterly destroyed object. The car is a wreck. A destroyed ship at the bottom the sea can also be called a wreck. Colloquially, someone in particularly bad shape can also be called a wreck.

Let’s bring it all together. Drinking all that alcohol really wreaked havoc on Lindsay’s stomach. She reeked of booze and she was a total wreck the next morning. Make sense?