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A Heart-Rending Usage Tip

January 1, 2019 By Andy Hollandbeck ACES News

California Representative Barbara Lee recently visited two immigrant detention centers in Texas. This weekend, she described what she saw to Jake Tapper as “heart-wrenching.”

One definition of wrenching is “injuring by violent twisting or straining.” The heart being the metaphorical center of one’s emotions, there’s a certain logic to describing a painful emotional state as a heart that has been twisted or strained to the point of injury.

However, the traditional idiom is heart-rending.

Rending means “tearing apart.” The rending of clothes, for example, plays into a number of biblical stories, even though Joel 2:13 directs us to “Rend your heart and not your garments.”

Wrenching your garments, on the other hand, will only help you squeeze water out of them.

Something that is heart-rending (or, if you prefer, heartrending) is so painful that it has torn your heart apart.

Because the term heart-wrenching is understandable, meaningful, logical, and on the rise — and because it’s been around since the mid-19th century, less than half the time heart-rending has been in use — I hesitate to call it an outright error, but you should be aware that it is nontraditional. If you want some metaphorical wrenching in your narrative, you want gut-wrenching — which pairs nicely with heart-rending.

Jon Tyson 762642 Unsplash
(Jon Tyson/Unsplash)

Far outside the boundaries of acceptability, though, is *heart-rendering, an error that occurs far more often than I expected when I started writing this post. Rendering is the process of melting out animal fat for the purpose of cooking, something you could likely do with an unhealthy physical heart, but not so much with a pained metaphorical one.

A note about hyphenation: The American Heritage Dictionary online includes the hyphenated headword heart-rending, while Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary lists the unhyphenated heartrending. Which you use comes down to house style and editorial choice, and either can be considered correct. Unless you’re writing for an audience that isn’t at all versed in English idiom, it seems unlikely that a reader would misread heartrendingas hear-trending.

But consider this: If you are going to pair the term with gut-wrenching — which Merriam-Webster includes as hyphenated and American Heritage doesn’t include at all — using the hyphenated gut-wrenching with the unhyphenated heartrending may create a visual discontinuity that could give your readers pause. I would hyphenate them both.

Because the world isn’t yet ready for gutwrenching.


This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website, June 27, 2018.

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