Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

English idioms don’t necessarily make a lot of logical sense. You can’t literally offer a salesperson an arm and a leg for the latest sports car. You’re not exactly “spilling the beans” when you “let the cat out of the bag” either. And these idioms get even more challenging when they are used verbally more often than they are written. Such can be the case with a “nerve-racking” experience… or should you use “nerve-wracking” instead?

The Basic Definitions

Let’s start by defining what the root words “rack” and “wrack” mean in the first place. Both words actually take on several different meanings and can be used in a variety of circumstances. Indeed, both words can function as both nouns and verbs too. How’s that for nerve-wracking?

As a noun, you may have eaten a “rack” of lamb or hung your jacket on the coat “rack.” In pool, you can tell someone to “rack” them up, just as the triangular frame used to put those billiard balls into position is itself called a “rack.” And you know that Medieval torture device that stretched out its victims? That’s the torture “rack,” or simply the “rack.” Colloquially, “rack” can refer to all sorts of things. “Wrack” can also be used as a noun, but it’s not as common. It usually refers to a shipwreck.

In deciding whether you should spell the idiom as “nerve-wracking” or “nerve-racking,” we’re more interested in the verb forms of “rack” and “wrack.” While there are tons of possible meanings there too, the most common use of “to rack” is to cause pain or anguish. More literally, it means to put someone on the torture rack and stretch them out.

And just as “wrack” can mean a ship that has been wrecked or destroyed, “to wrack” means to destroy or completely ruin. In other words, “to wrack” means roughly the same thing as “to wreck.”

Both Terms Make Sense…

Can you see why there is added confusion with “nerve-racking” (or “nerve-wracking”) as an idiom? Are you torturing your nerves when you say an experience is nerve-racking? Or are you utterly ruining those nerves in a figurative sense? After all, a “nerve-wracking” experience is one that causes much anxiety and distress.

Well, as much as I would like to provide you with the definitive answer, there really isn’t one. By and large, “nerve-racking” and “nerve-wracking” are both accepted. Go figure. I tend to prefer “wracking” just because of how it looks, but “racking” probably makes more logical sense. Unfortunately, idioms don’t have to be make sense.

Racking My Brain Is Nerve-Wracking

When you think deeply about a question or problem, to the point where it causes you some distress, you could say that you are “racking your brain.” Whether you choose “wracking” or “racking” in this context is, like the nerve-wracking conundrum above, up for debate. That said, most people likely would not fault you for either “racking your brain” or “wracking your brain” over something.

And again, “racking” your brain — as in figuratively putting your brain on the torture rack — probably makes more logical sense than smashing the ship of your brain up against some rocks to utter destruction. We could just as easily discuss being wracked with emotion or racked with sorrow.

Language is fun, isn’t it?