‘Wreak havoc’ or ‘wreck havoc’?
The harsh Southwest sun can wreak havoc on a wood deck.
Last summer’s hot, dry weather wrecked havoc on soybean seed production.
Do you know which one is correct?
English speakers often confuse ‘wreak havoc’ with ‘wreck havoc’. The confusion is more than understandable: both words are nearly homophones (they sound alike) and also are spelled with only a letter of difference. Part of the problem is the relative rarity of the verb wreak, as compared with the more common verb wreck.
The word wreak means ‘to cause or inflict’ and is usually paired with nouns meaning either ‘a large amount of damage or harm’ (as in wreak havoc or wreak devastation) or ‘vengeance’ (as in wreak revenge). Although it would sound somewhat archaic today, the word wreak can also be used alone, without an object, to mean ‘avenge’.
On the other hand, the verb form of the word wreck, means to ‘destroy or severely damage (a structure or vehicle)’ or ‘spoil completely’. (Wreck, of course, also has a noun form.) Because wreck does not have the sense of ‘cause’ or ‘inflict’ like wreak does, the phrase ‘wrecking havoc’ is illogical.
The confusion of wreck and wreak is fairly common. In the Oxford English Corpus, which gathers real-world examples of usage, around 5% of all written examples of the phrase are written as ‘wreck havoc’ as opposed to ‘wreak havoc’. The overlap between the words has a long history: the Oxford English Dictionary records use of wreck as a variant spelling and pronunciation of wreak in the 16th through 18th centuries, including examples by such well-regarded authors as Milton and Oliver Goldsmith. However, this usage was regarded as obsolete by the early 20th century, and is now considered a mistake.
Another confusing aspect of the word wreak deals with how to conjugate its past tense. The common phrase ‘wrought havoc’ sometimes leads people to assume that wrought is the past tense of wreak, but that is not the case: it is simply wreaked. That said, wrought havoc is considered an acceptable variant of wreaked havoc.