What Is the Difference Between Nerve-Wracking and Nerve-Racking?

  • The correct spelling is “nerve-racking.” The phrase describes something that makes you very nervous and uneasy.
  • “Nerve-wracking” has become an accepted variant, although some language purists may take issue with this alternative.

There are a lot of expressions involving the nerves (and the brain), which include the word wrack and the word rack.

As the English language is rife with situations where words and phrases can be used interchangeably, and there are nearly always exceptions to rules, it can be difficult to determine whether a phrase is being used properly or not.

One such instance involves an expression which you may commonly see represented as “nerve-wracking,” while at other times is depicted without the “w” as “nerve-wracking.”

Let’s break down these two phrases to determine the proper usage and contemplate why there is confusion between the two.

A graphic with the words Nerve Racking Wracking

Nerve-wracking

The phrase nerve-wracking is often used when there is a situation that causes a severe amount of stress, anxiety, fear, or some combination of those elements. Here’s an example of this phrase used in a sentence.

When the loss-prevention manager questioned me about the missing merchandise, it was a nerve-wracking experience for me even though I had nothing to do with it.

The use of this expression informs the reader that the person being interviewed found the interrogation to be a stressful, unpleasant experience, even though the individual claimed not to be involved in the incident.

The word “wrack” is the phrase in question and is essentially a variant of the word “wreck,” meaning that something was destroyed, damaged, or cast off.

Some examples:

The woman wracked her car on the rail when she slid on the black ice.

After the intense fire, there was no wrack of the author’s precious script left behind.

The forensics experts sifted through the wrack on the seashore, seeking evidence amid the castoff seaweed and other debris.

Gunfire wracked the ship, and it sank beneath the waves.

The use of the adjective nerve-wracking implies that the situation was so intense that it destroyed one’s nerves, figuratively speaking.

Nerve-racking

The preliminary part of this expression, “nerve,” is the same as above, leaving “racking” as the difference-maker here.

This adjective is often used interchangeably with “nerve-wracking” and is intended to serve the same purpose. It also represents a situation where one’s nerves were frayed due to a harrowing experience that induces anxiety and stress.

Susan felt lightheaded and short of breath when she finally completed the nerve-racking exam.

Here, poor Susan had struggled with a complex test, which produced anxiety symptoms by the time she completed it. The stress and fear of failure made the experience unpleasant for her.

Since they are often used interchangeably, let’s look at the meaning of the word “rack.” It is a more diverse word than its counterpart, offering various purposes.

It can refer to metal hooks or other pegs which are intended for the placement of clothing, as in a clothing “rack.”

When she saw the dress had fallen to the floor, Emily racked it among the others in the closet.

Also, it can informally describe situations where a person accumulated a large quantity of something.

I watched in amazement as Matthew racked up over a million points on the arcade machine.

Another meaning is a situation that requires mental effort:

Garret racked his brain in an attempt to remember the blonde woman’s name.

There’s also the famous medieval torture device, referred to as “the rack,” in which victims were placed on a bedlike frame with their wrists and ankles bound by ropes attached to axles. When these were turned, the ropes tightened, pulling on the arms and legs and causing excruciating agony.

A picture of a medieval torture device with the phrase "medieval torture was quite nerve (and body)-racking, to describe the origins of the phrase "nerve racking"

As a result, this may prove as the inspiration for our current usage of the phrase, as it refers to a painful and miserable experience.

When my mom finished chewing me out, I felt like I had been racked.

Therefore, having your nerves “racked” could logically mean that they feel stretched to the point of agony because of a stressful situation.

Which Usage is Correct?

Now we are where the rubber meets the road: which form should you use in your writing?

As we alluded to in the very opening of the article, officially, this expression’s proper and original spelling is “nerve-racking.” Therefore, if you want to ensure that your grammar is in tip-top shape and no one can question your powerful grasp of the English language, that is the expression you will want. Additionally, this is backed up by Merriam-Webster, which proclaims “racking” to be the original spelling and “wracking” as a variant.

Screen Shot of Merriam Webster's definition of Nerve Racking, which states that "racking" is the correct spelling while "wracking" is an acceptable variant

However, since the meaning of “wracking” is one of destruction, there’s also a certain logic behind its usage. As it has become so common, most sources consider it an alternative use, and the only ones who may cause you grief are language purists.

Synonyms of Nerve Racking:

Here are synonyms for the phrase “Nerve Racking:”

  • Agitating
  • Anxious
  • Creepy
  • Disquieting
  • Distressful
  • Distressing
  • Disturbing
  • Fraught
  • Hairy
  • Nail-biting
  • Nervous
  • Restless
  • Tense
  • Uneasy
  • Unnerving
  • Unsettling
  • Worrisome

 

Related:  Is it Bear With Me or Bare With Me? 


 

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