Grammar Moses: I racked my brain to come up with this wreck of a column

Updated 12/8/2018 4:15 PM

When the Chicago area was blanketed recently by not only a wet, sloppy snow, but also by power outages, Bev Cherney of Kildeer spent part of the more than 50 hours her home was turning into a refrigerator thinking about words.

Clearly, the electrical system in her brain was humming along just fine.

"Your recent columns on homophones coupled with the weekend snowstorm got me thinking about a group of similar words," she wrote once the furnace came back on. "Although they are not homophones, they are similar enough to be confusing. What is the appropriate usage for 'wreak,' 'wrack,' 'wreck' and 'rack?'"

Before I could answer her, she gave me this example:

"The recent snowstorm wreaked havoc on the Chicago area. Heavy snow and ice wracked the power lines, which wrecked my home's electrical supply along with my sump pump. As I raced towels to the basement in the dark, I fell down the stairs and racked my ankle. Do I have this right?"

First, let's define these words:

• Wreak: to punish or avenge. One wreaks havoc or vengeance. In Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus," the eponymous Roman general says, "We will solicit heaven, and move the gods to send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs."

• Wreck: to destroy.

• Wrack: synonymous with wreck.

• Rack: to torture by stretching (ala a medieval rack.) Something nerve-racking is psychologically torturous.

Can you imagine a wooden rack so small that it could stretch nerves? I clearly can envision an army of tiny torture racks causing the migraine I'm suffering right now.

So, Bev, your example works. You get extra credit for using "wrack" as a homophonic-ish synonym.

Now, which won the race down the basement stairs -- you or the towels?

She called it a dead heat.

Pique a boo!

A reader named George sent me this sentence: "While driving past the theater his interest was peaked by the crowd on the sidewalk."

I assume George was hoping for a response, despite not having asked me a question.

For the sake of the guilty party, I will not disclose what he confided was the source of the sentence.

I imagine all of you know the correct homophone in this sentence would be "piqued" as in "stimulated."

Its cousins, of course, are peaked (having a peak, as in a hat) and peeked (to look furtively.)

Here is a statement I probably ought to avoid, because it would create confusion: My interest in music peaked (reached its summit) when I turned 15.

Enough of 'of'

One of the smallest and overused words is "of."

I've written in this space about the superfluous use of the word, but it wasn't until the other day that I thought I might lose my youknowwhat when I heard it abused three times in (a span of) five minutes while I listened to the morning news.

A sports person referred to "the game of basketball" when "basketball" would have sufficed, and in the same breath he mentioned a "period of time" when in that case "time" worked just as well. A news anchor then referred to so many "acres of land" when acreage IS a measure of land area.

If you were about to reread this column to analyze the 20 times I used "of," I'll save you the trouble. I already made sure each was warranted, including the phrase I wrapped in parentheses to show you how easy it is to overdo it.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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