Q&A: Heart-rending or heart-wrenching

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have a rent overdue…

Q: Hi AWC, I was watching an interview with a US doctor last night, and she was describing the situation as “heart-rending”. It just sounded wrong. It’s wrong, isn’t it?

A: Take a seat…

Q: Isn’t it???

A: Please sit.

Q: No way! It’s like I don’t even recognise this language any more!

A: Calm down. But yeah, the adjective phrase “heart-rending” is actually correct.

Q: No way. I’ve always said “heart-wrenching”! 

A: Hmmmm, sorry, that’s not correct. The phrase “heart-rending” dates back to the 1680s. Macquarie Dictionary defines it as “causing acute mental anguish”.

Q: But “rending”? Rending? What kind of verb is REND?

A: Actually a busy one. “Rend” is related to the verb “rent”. 

Q: I thought only tenants in South Africa could get away with paying their rent in rend?

A: Haha, very cute. The currency you’re thinking of is “rand” and no, we meant that it was related to “rent” as in “to tear apart, split or divide” – not the tenant payment. “Rent” just happens to be the past tense and past participle of “rend”.

Q: Examples?

A: Sure. “I watch as the ground rends apart beneath me.” Or: “the driveway was rent to pieces from the earthquake” (past tense). And: “the driveway had rent open in several places” (past participle).

Q: Ohhhh… cracked driveway. I’m not sure anyone’s going to want to rent that property now…

A: Anyway, the point is that “rend” is totally a word and concerns itself with splitting things apart violently. Like hearts.

Q: I still think you need to fix that driveway.

A: Sure, we’ll get someone onto it.

Q: I guess I’m just more used to seeing “render” – such as “the exorbitant rent the landlord charged rendered him penniless” or “the sudden cracks in the driveway rendered him speechless”.

A: Well “render” is of course a completely different word – meaning “to make or cause something/someone to be” – from the French “rendre” (to give back). Meanwhile, “rend” traces its origins to Old Germanic “rendan”, meaning “to tear, cut down”. It’s basically the opposite.

Q: And none of this has anything to do with the Broadway musical Rent?

A: No, apart from perhaps the heart-rending scene where Mimi dies.

Q: Nah, that doesn’t hold a candle to that song about lighting candles.

A: Roger that.

Q: Alright, so “heart-rending” makes a lot more sense now. Yet WHY have I always thought it was “heart-wrenching”?

A: First up, you’re not alone – it’s a common mistake that even seasoned writers make. And we suspect there are two reasons for it. The verbs “rend”, “rended” or “rending” are fairly rare these days, whereas “wrenching” has a common visceral quality that not only sounds similar but also means something similar. Yet the main reason is likely to do with another phrase: “gut-wrenching”.

Q: Ahhhh… body part + rending/wrenching. That might be it. Confusion solved!

A: Yeah, “gut-wrenching” is defined by Macquarie Dictionary as a colloquial phrase meaning “harrowing”. It’s not a million miles from the aforementioned mental anguish of “heart-rending” – and given the unfamiliarity of “rending”, we can see how the switcheroo happens.

Q: I’m still in shock that I’ve been using it wrong all these years…

A: Years? Don’t you mean 525,600 minutes?…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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