Reek, Wreak, and Wreck

Commonly Confused Words

reek, wreak, and wreck
June Casagrande, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies (Penguin, 2006). (Getty Images)

Two of these commonly confused words are homophones: reek and wreak rhyme with seek. In terms of pronunciationwreck is the odd one out: it rhymes with neck.

Definitions

As a verb, reek means to have a strong, offensive odor or to emit or give off (steam, smoke, fumes, etc.). The noun reek refers to a vapor or fume, or to a strong smell or stench.

The verb wreak means to cause or bring about (harm or havoc) or to inflict (punishment or vengeance).

(The past tense of wreak is wreaked, not wrought.)

As a verb, wreck means to damage, tear down, or destroy. The noun wreck refers to the remains of something that has been damaged, disabled, or destroyed. In addition, the noun wreck may refer to a person in poor mental or physical condition.

Examples

  • "'You didn't bathe,' her father said.

    "'I did, I did' from Buttercup.

    "'Not with water,' her father continued. 'You reek like a stallion.'

    "'I've been riding all day,' Buttercup explained."
    (William Goldman, The Princess Bride, 1973)
     
  • "The Captain looked Tom up and down. The tosher's hair was crusted into clumps and the reek of the sewers clung to his old coat. God only knows how he smelled to the dog who had her nose tucked right into one torn lapel."
    (Clare Clark, The Great Stink, 2005)
     
  • "He lay staring skyward while his folded hands fiddled upon his chest, as if revolving within himself the information that he had been cuckolded and must wreak a thorough vengeance on the criminals."
    (John Updike, Gertrude and Claudius, 2000)
     
  • "When ships would wreck around Key West, he would salvage the cargo before it sank and then sell it off. Furniture, liquor, silk, jewelry, you name it."
    (Jennifer L. Holm, Turtle in Paradise, 2010)
     
  • "I was a wreck. I thought my life was finished. 'Thirty-five years old and divorced twice' rang in my ears and in my soul."
    (Carolyn See, Dreaming:: Hard Luck and Good Times in America. Random House, 1995)
     
  • "The guards fell back to a discreet distance.

    "'What would you have me call you?' the lord asked, as they trotted down the broad straight streets of Barrowton.

    "Reek, I'm Reek, it rhymes with wreak. 'Reek,' he said, 'if it please my lord.'"
    (George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons, 2011)


Usage Notes

  • "The boy wreaked havoc in the basement by wrecking his castle made of blocks. Wreak in this sense of 'to bring about, cause' is sometimes confused with wreck, 'to cause the destruction of,' perhaps because the wreaking of damage may leave a wreck. A storm should therefore only wreak havoc, never wreck it."
    (The American Heritage Book of English Usage. Houghton Mifflin, 1996)
     
  • "Something can be said to reek when it emits vapour, steam or fumes. The word is most often used when the emission is foul-smelling. The verb 'to wreak' tends to be used in a vengeful context. You might wreak your anger against Mrs Talbot by taking the heads off her tulips, or you might wreak your fury at the latest increase in council tax by calling for a public demonstration outside the Council House."
    (David Rothwell, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Homonyms. Wordsworth, 2007)
     

Practice:

(a) "Fifteen minutes from now, I will _____ a terrible vengeance on this city.

No one will be spared. No one."
(Mr. Burns in "Last Exit to Springfield." The Simpsons, 1993)

(b) "He remembered the _____ of meat. A humid, bloody, gagging smell, mysteriously sweet, that had soaked the Jersey City apartment from a Halal butcher one floor down, suffused the mattresses and sheets, imbued the splintered floor and the foam-rubber couch, so there was no relief from it."
(Jennifer Egan, Look at Me, 2001)

(c) "The small den was a _____—sofa cushions thrown on the floor, clothing scattered about. Across the wall to the right someone had scrawled, with some type of reddish liquid, the words 'Jim Smith next will die.'"
(John Grisham, The Innocent Man, 2006)

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

Answers to Practice Exercises: Reek, Wreak, and Wreck

(a) "Fifteen minutes from now, I will wreak a terrible vengeance on this city. No one will be spared. No one."
(Mr. Burns in "Last Exit to Springfield." The Simpsons, 1993)

(b) "He remembered the reek of meat. A humid, bloody, gagging smell, mysteriously sweet, that had soaked the Jersey City apartment from a Halal butcher one floor down, suffused the mattresses and sheets, imbued the splintered floor and the foam-rubber couch, so there was no relief from it."
(Jennifer Egan, Look at Me, 2001)

(c) "The small den was a wreck—sofa cushions thrown on the floor, clothing scattered about.

Across the wall to the right someone had scrawled, with some type of reddish liquid, the words 'Jim Smith next will die.'"
(John Grisham, The Innocent Man, 2006)

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Reek, Wreak, and Wreck." ThoughtCo, Dec. 25, 2016, thoughtco.com/reek-wreak-and-wreck-1689479. Nordquist, Richard. (2016, December 25). Reek, Wreak, and Wreck. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/reek-wreak-and-wreck-1689479 Nordquist, Richard. "Reek, Wreak, and Wreck." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/reek-wreak-and-wreck-1689479 (accessed January 20, 2018).