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Rack up some points


The Free Lance-Star

Copy editor to sportswriter Justin Rice, circa 2010: “Justin, according to the AP Stylebook, nerves are racked, not wracked.”

Justin Rice to copy editor: “Stupid nerves!”

For as long as I can remember, AP has held that rack as a noun is a physical structure, and rack as a verb means to arrange on a rack or to torture or torment.

 And it further opined that wrack as a verb means essentially the same as rack as a verb, but that rack is preferred.

But even the strictest usage decrees may soften at room temperature.

First, AP relented on the spelling of wrack in the phrases wrack and ruin and wracked with doubt.

A few weeks ago, without fanfare, AP emailed an update to its online subscribers.

It adds this phrase to its entry on rack, wrack: “Also, nerve-wracking.”

I’m happy to see AP give on this, as it’s one of those arcane rules that make reporters and some readers roll their eyes. You can almost hear them thinking, “You are sooooooo 20th century.”

Or maybe just, “Huh?”

We’re all conditioned to silent-W spellings such as wreck, wrestle, wriggle, wreath and wring, so the wrack spelling just seems logical to many writers.

A quick search of The Free Lance–Star’s electronic archive shows that in the past 13 years, the AP-preferred nerve-racking spelling has made it into print 277 times, while the supposedly forbidden silent-W spelling, nerve-wracking, has gotten past the copy editors a pretty impressive 139 times.

 Many of those appearances, by the way, have been in stories produced  by The Associated Press.

I don’t think it hinders understanding one bit to write nerve-wracking, and I also don’t blink when I see it written nerve-racking.

As always, writers should keep their audiences in mind. Be aware that this phrase is still in dispute. In some formal contexts, the no-silent-W spelling nerve-racking is still preferred.

“Garner’s Modern American Usage,” for one, has not given in.

Author Bryan A. Garner writes: “Nerve-racking 

(= exasperating) is so spelled—not *nerve-wracking.”

The asterisk, by the way, is the symbol Garner uses for expressions “that are invariably poor usage.”

I can’t torture myself over this one, though.

I’ll probably adopt the new AP rule and use nerve-wracking in my own writing. I will continue, however, to rack my brains—the spelling still preferred by AP in that phrase.

Laura Moyer of The Free Lance–Star is a lifelong compulsive copy editor. A version of this column  appeared in her Red Pen blog on fredericksburg .com. You can reach her at 540/374-5417 or