The newspaper editor (that’s me) hovers over words with an intensity that the writer can’t afford, faced with deadlines and the need to focus on the story’s content. As a result, we editors sometimes feel slightly guilty taking a sledgehammer to writers’ words that are not incorrect but that have a whiff of imprecision. I came across one such word this morning, when my colleague Sean wrote that a civil war had “wrecked” a country’s economy. The implication is that the economy might have remained intact without that particular wrecking ball.
The war, and we’re talking about Côte d’Ivoire here, followed several politically messy years that led to most foreign aid disappearing as the new millennium arrived. The country is rich in cocoa and palm oil, among other products, but its economy was being dismantled well before the civil war arrived in late 2000. I remember travelling through Ghana in late 1998 and taking a long bus nearly to the Ivoirian border for a couple days there on a business trip, only to be refused entry at the last minute because racially-fuelled disputes had just shut down several government offices. The economy has begun to find its feet again, sinc3 2006, but with oil and gas overtaking cocoa bean production, political stability is far from guaranteed.
“Wrecked” is a powerful word, meaning ruin and destroy, as are its synonyms, judging by the collection Thesauras.com offers us. It includes these, for a start:
bash, batter, break, capsize, crack up, crash, cripple, dash, decimate, demolish, devastate, disable, do in, efface, founder, impair, injure, mangle, mar, mess up*, pile up, put out of commission, ravage, raze, run aground, sabotage, scuttle, shatter, shipwreck, sink, smash, smash up.
I preferred “battered”, no less powerful, but it means strike and damage: we tend to use it more often in situations where the instrument that is doing the damage is adding to existing damage, or where the damage is done in a series of repeated thrusts.
A storm-battered coast may be as hard hit as one wrecked by a hurricane, but the implication of the first is that continual lashes from a storm did the damage rather than a giant wallop being given by a hurricane. To say that a woman has been battered by her husband implies it’s been an ongoing process, while a wrecked marriage implies the finality of the last big hit by a wrecking ball, rather than the slow disintegration of a dying relationship.
But nuances of words and the final choice are to some extent subjective, and writers will often disagree.
Getting a word’s basic definition right is not subjective, however. Here is a pair of words that are cousins, but they don’t have the same meaning or use:
from The Free Dictionary
transitive verb1. To cause the destruction of in or as if in a collision.2. To dismantle or raze; tear down.3. To cause to undergo ruin or disaster.
wreaktransitive verb, wreaked, wreak·ing, wreaks1. To inflict (vengeance or punishment) upon a person.2. To express or gratify (anger, malevolence, or resentment); vent.3. To bring about; cause: wreak havoc.4. Archaic To take vengeance for; avenge.Usage Note: Wreak is sometimes confused with wreck, perhaps because the wreaking of damage may leave a wreck: The storm wreaked (not wrecked ) havoc along the coast. The past tense and past participle of wreak is wreaked, not wrought, which is an alternative past tense and past participle of work.
One of my colleagues wrote a news story this morning about a bus accident in Germany, saying the bus “careened out of control on the A10 motorway”. I would have written “careered out of control”, so I looked up the two words to see who was right. It turns out we both are, but he’s probably “more right” than I am, to use a phrase that would make my mother turn over in her grave. Right and wrong are sometimes called “incomparable adjectives” because “their simplest form expresses the only degree possible”: you can’t compare degrees of rightness or wrongness.
Sometimes, to be diplomatic or to avoid losing a fight, we break that grammatical rule.
Miriam-Webster has this to say of my word choice:
Definition of CAREER : to go at top speed especially in a headlong manner <a car careered off the road>
and this for my fellow journalist’s:
Examples of CAREEN
- <the sled careened as it barreled down the hill>
- <he careened unsteadily to the couch after hitting his head>