Nerve-Wracking or Nerve-Racking – What’s the Difference?

Sometimes, it feels as if we experience stressful situations—or at least worry about them—every day of our lives. Thus, it is no surprise that we have many words to describe things that cause us unease.

One of these words, nerve-racking, describes something that causes a great deal of stress or anxiety. But if you have done enough reading, you will notice that writers spell the term two different ways: nerve-racking and nerve-wracking.

Do these phrases actually mean different things, or are they interchangeable? If you have been racking your brains trying to find the answer to this question, continue reading to ease your mind

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

In this article, I will compare nerve-wracking vs. nerve-racking. I will outline when it is appropriate to use each spelling, and, at the end, I will give you a useful memory tool that you can use to decide whether nerve-wracking or nerve-racking is the word you want.

When to Use Nerve-Racking

nerve wracking definitionWhat does nerve-racking mean? First, let’s start with the more common spelling: rack. This is a somewhat complicated word; it corresponds with nine different nouns and seven different verbs.

Rather than go through every one of these individual senses, I will cut to the chase. The important takeaway from these two spellings is that rack is predominant in all senses but one: seaweed, kelp (see below).

Give this fact, nerve-racking is the standard, preferred spelling of the adjective that means exceptionally stressful or anxiety inducing.

For example,

  • The hiring process was a nerve-racking gauntlet of background checks, follow-up appointments, and group interviews.
  • The drive back home through the snowy mountains was nerve-racking.
  • There was one, nerve-racking moment when nuclear war seemed inevitable.
  • This was nerve-racking, Caro said. “Walking through national parks that have high lion populations draped in a zebra skin while a long way from the car is not the most sensible thing to do,” he deadpanned. –The Washington Post

Other Phrases Using Rack

Define nerve wracking and define Nerve rackingFor all other phrases in question, rack is the standard spelling.

  • Rack one’s brain: make a great effort to remember or think of something.
  • Go to rack and ruin: gradually deteriorate into a state of ruin
  • Off the rack: brand new from a clothing or retail store.
  • On the rack: suffering intense distress or strain.
  • Rack something up: accumulate or add something up.
  • Rack of lamb: a cut of lamb cut perpendicularly to the spine.

When to Use Nerve-Wracking

What does nerve-wracking mean? Nerve-wracking is a variant spelling of nerve-racking; it is less common throughout written English, but some style guides actually prefer it (see below).

In both American and British English, the preferred spelling overall is nerve-racking. Here is a chart that graphs nerve-wracking vs. nerve-racking across all English speaking parts of the world.

Nerve racking versus nerve wracking

The spelling wrack is preferred only in one sense: seaweed. In this sense, wrack refers to any number of coarse brown seaweeds that grow on the shoreline.

  • Storms had torn wracks and kelps from the seabed and driven them against Roker pier, forcing the heap higher up the beach with each successive tide. –The Guardian

AP Style Guidelines

Apparently, however, not everyone in the writing community agrees with the common consensus of general usage.

nerve wracking definitionThe AP Stylebook holds that the noun wrack is to be used in the sense of ruin or destruction, which most publications and dictionaries reserve for rack (or at least they prefer it)

AP Style specifically prefers the spellings wrack and ruin, wracked with pain, and nerve-wracking.

If you are writing in AP Style, here are its general requirements,

  • Rack = various types of framework (noun); to arrange on said framework, to torture, to torment (verb)
  • Wrack = ruin or destruction (noun)

Therefore,

  • Clothes were placed on the rack.
  • They tortured him on the rack.
  • She racked her brain.

-but-

  • Wrack and ruin.
  • Wracked with pain.
  • Nerve-wracking.

What’s the Bottom Line?

nerve wracking definitionAs I started this post off, these two words are somewhat complicated, so I now want to distill all of this information into something concise and actionable for the average writer who is simply looking to clear his writing of mistakes and typos.

Unless you are specifically guided to use AP Style by your employer, publisher, teacher, etc., you can remember nerve-racking vs. nerve-wracking quite easily.

In all senses of the word (with the exception of seaweed), choose rack. This makes choosing nerve-racking incredibly easy.

Unless you are talking about seaweed, default to nerve-racking. Now, there is no need to rack your brain anymore.

Summary

Is it nerve-racking or nerve-wracking? Nerve-racking and nerve-wracking are alternate spellings of the same adjective, referring to something stressful or anxiety-inducing.

  • Nerve-racking is the standard spelling.
  • Wrack is as a word for seaweed.

If you ever have questions about word choice or other confusing writing topics, come back and visit us at Writing Explained.