Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Perhaps you’ve heard the line in a Hollywood blockbuster involving a superhero and his quest for vengeance. Maybe you’ve heard it in the context of a video game or television show filled with explosive action and intense drama. When a character says that he will not rest until he exacts his revenge, what exactly does that mean? Or maybe he wants to extract his revenge instead?

As with so many other English idioms, the phrase “to exact revenge” is oftentimes misheard or misspoken. It becomes even more troubling and even more confusing when common words are used in a less common way. Because of this, some people may attempt to over-correct their grammar and unintentionally choose the wrong word altogether.

In this instance, when you are trying to say that someone wants to get their revenge for a perceived wrongdoing, to exact revenge is correct and to extract revenge is not. To better understand this, let’s look at the words exact and extract.

Most people are familiar with the definition of exact in terms of being used as an adjective. If something is exact, then it is completely accurate or correct. The exact size of the display on the Nexus 6 is 5.93-inches. If you create a perfect duplicate of a painting, then you would say that you’ve created an exact copy.

However, “exact” in the phrase “exact revenge” is not being used as adjective. It’s not saying that the revenge is particularly accurate, precise or specific. Instead, “exact” is being used as a verb. This usage is not nearly as common and is likely the main cause for confusion.

When used as a verb, “to exact” means to demand, to require or to compel. We then interpret the phrase “to exact revenge” to mean “to obtain revenge.” That’s not exactly the same as requiring revenge, but that is the connection. Put another way, exacting your revenge is fulfilling your demand for revenge.

Marcus vowed he would exact his revenge on Tony for wreaking havoc at his party.

By comparison, “to extract” something (as a verb) means to remove, separate or draw out. The scientists in Jurassic Park were able to extract dinosaur DNA from prehistoric mosquitoes preserved in amber. This can be used in both a literal and a figurative sense. For example, you could say that interrogators work to extract key information from persons of interest.

In this way, you are not trying to draw revenge out of something (“to extract revenge”), but rather you are the one who wants to inflict the vengeance on someone else. “To exact revenge” makes you the active party performing the act of revenge, while “to extract revenge” would imply you are pulling revenge out of someone else.

Is there another English idiom you’d like to see explored? Or any other grammar question you like answered in a future post? Post your comment below and I’ll add your idea to the queue!