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Nerve-wracking or nerve-racking — Which spelling is correct?

Nerve-wracking and nerve-racking are two very similar-looking words. But are there any differences between them both?

Aneeca Younas
Aneeca Younas

Nerve-wracking and nerve-racking are two very similar-looking words. But are there any differences between them both?

How do you spell nerve-wracking?

  • Nerve-racking is the original spelling of the phrase.
  • Nerve-wracking is a well-established variant. Most dictionaries and editors deem the phrase acceptable, but some prescriptivists would see it as an error.

Definition of nerve-wracking and nerve-racking

When something makes you feel nervous or afraid, you can say it is nerve-wracking. However, the more appropriate spelling would be nerve-racking. The verbs wrack and rack have two different definitions, but they both lend themselves to the intended meaning of the phrase.

Additionally, you can use wrack and rack interchangeably in many other phrases — dictionaries like Merriam-Webster and OED list wrack as a variant of the word rack.

The verb wrack means to destroy, ruin, or damage something - it is a similar synonym of the verb wreck. However, it is considered archaic now, and you won’t come across it in the modern text.

On the other hand, racking is derived from the verb rack and has numerous meanings. It can mean to gather or accumulate things:

He racked up a lot of points in the basketball match.

It may also mean putting items on a rack for display purposes:

We rack the t-shirts in the sale section.

Thirdly, it can also mean to cause pain or torture:

I felt like I was being racked in the police interrogation room.

Nerve-wracking or racking?

As you can see, both the verbs wrack and rack convey similar visions of displeasure. Unfortunately, they are also pronounced the same, which only leads to more confusion. Both spellings are acceptable, but you may wish to try a synonym to be more precise.

Synonyms for nerve-wracking: trying, distressing, daunting, difficult, stressful.

Synonyms for nerve-racking: gut-wrenching, harrowing, terrifying.

Some more examples:

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EnglishWhich is correctIdioms & expressions

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