Racked, Wrecked, or What?

Here are more pairs of words I run across in manuscripts I’m editing that get confused. One that puzzles me is the word wracked. I see this a lot in published novels, and particularly with novels published by one publishing house in particular (sorry, not naming names, but it is a bit weird how that word comes up in just about every novel of theirs I read and is spelled wrong). I’ve been tempted to write them, but I have to use some self-control. Just so you know–we editors can get a little carried away. It takes a lot of scolding myself not to dig a pen out of my purse and start marking up menus at restaurants.

If you are racking your brain right now, or you’re racked with pain, then you are spelling the word correctly. The spelling wracked means wrecked. It’s a old variation of that word. Or it can mean a rack (noun) or a type of seaweed. But it does not mean to suffer pain or anguish or torture, or to strain violently (rack your brain). I don’t know why this word bugs me so much but it does.

Another pair of words I see used incorrectly a lot is lightning and lightening. It should be pretty obvious that if you plan to make something whiter, you will be lightening it (verb). The stuff that shoots out of the sky in a storm is lightning.

And then there’s compliment and complement (as well as complimentary and complementary). Pay attention to that little easy-to-miss difference in the vowel there. I pay you a compliment when I see how well your shoes complement your dress. If I give you complimentary tickets to the game, you might compliment on my shoes just to be nice (and hope I’ll give you more in the future).

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  1. I used to know this without question, but I’ve seen it written ‘wracked’ so many times now that I began to wonder if it had become correct somehow? LOL. Thank you for the clarification!

  2. I’ve noticed over the years that some of the language I use is considered incorrect but has gained acceptability–in some circles only, mind you–due to popularization or widespread use. I grew up (in Northern California) hearing and saying “snuck” instead of “sneaked”, for example. I could never bring myself to say “sneaked” even though, technically, it’s correct.

    I wonder if “wrack” is another example of language simply evolving. The bundled Apple dictionary that comes with every Macintosh says this:

    USAGE The relationship between the forms rack and wrack is complicated. The most common noun sense of rack, ‘a framework for holding and storing things,’ is always spelled rack, never wrack. The figurative senses of the verb, deriving from the type of torture in which someone is stretched on a rack, can, however, be spelled either rack or wrack: thus, : racked with guilt or : wracked with guilt;: rack your brains or : wrack your brains. In addition, the phrase : rack and ruin can also be spelled : wrack and ruin .

    1. Words do evolve. I like Garner’s American Usage book because he shows the stage at which the change in usage is becoming acceptable. He uses a 1-5 star rating system. You are racked with guilt, though. Not wracked. Wracked means wrecked, and that’s not what people mean when they say they are racked with guilt (as explained in the post). You don’t “wrack” your brains unless you are smashing in your skull with a tire iron, and in that case I would choose a different word like pulverize. 🙂

  3. Thank you for clarifying this usage. I don’t believe I’ve ever used either word and probably haven’t noticed the difference in books I’ve read. I’m sure since you’ve posted your entry, you’ve caught “a old.” Sorry, it’s one of my pet peeves.
    Question: Which is correct–“try and (verb)” or “try to (verb)”? I see “try and” all the time but feel “try to” makes more sense.

  4. Hello,
    I am a word person. I like these kinds of things. Once I’ve read how to use them correctly I can usually remember. Although it seems there is always more to learn. I enjoy the history of words too. I’ll try to remember not to smash my brain with a tire iron. Keep them coming. 🙂

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