Q&A: Heart-rending or heart-wrenching

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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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