It’s a nerve-racking question

Some readers thought this headline from last week contained a misspelled word: Guilt racks accused mother. They thought the verb should have been wracks. The word was spelled correctly, though.

We followed The Associated Press Stylebook on this spelling, but we have other usage experts (Bernstein, Garner, Fowler, Bremner) on our side. “Rack” means to torment or torture as in being stretched on a rack. That’s why we write of a nerve-racking experience or of being racked with guilt. In the headline in question, we are saying that the mother is tormented by guilt. “Wrack” means to ruin or wreck, as in a storm-wracked ship. I guess that if something is “nerve-wracking” it is not merely tormenting us but is destroying our nerves.

In fact, however, dictionaries and some usage books do accept “wrack” as a spelling for the meaning of tortured or tormented, so those who choose that spelling have some support. For The N&O and other newspapers that follow the AP Stylebook, though, “rack” is the correct choice.

Here is the American Heritage Book of English Usage on rack and wrack.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.