To begin with, let’s look at some word meanings:
- Wreaked: Caused
- Wrought: Worked
Now let’s look at some sentences for the sake of context:
- “The hurricane has caused havoc in the town”
- “The hurricane has wreaked havoc in the town.”
- “The hurricane has worked havoc in the town.”
- “The hurricane has wrought havoc in the town.”
Guess what? They’re all correct. Of course, if you were using “wrought” under the impression that it was the past tense of “wreak,” you’d be wrong, but intention doesn’t show or matter in this case.
Some may say that “worked havoc” is a trifle odd, but it has also been suggested by many as a rather more modern word that could be used to replace “wreaking” which we seldom do these days.
However, there is one thing that a hurricane never, ever does:
“The hurricane wrecked havoc.”
This would imply that a remarkably tidy hurricane arrived in a crazy town that was in a state of utter chaos, and tidied everything away neatly, thereby depriving the citizens of the havoc they were enjoying so much. Truth be told, I could use a hurricane like that around my house.
Wrought vs Wreaked
I mentioned earlier I had a good source to go against the conventional wisdom of the meaning of these two words. To tell you the truth, I always thought “wrought” and “wreaked” were interchangeable, at least in the context of havoc, but my source is rather better than the encyclopedia I carry around in my own head. My authority is none other than the Oxford English Dictionary, and you don’t get a posher source than that. So next time someone thinks they’re clever and tries to tell you that “wrought” is the wrong word to use with “havoc” or “chaos,” you can tell them they’re Grammar Nazis of the worst kind. That is, they’re the kind that’s altogether adamant about being grammatically wrong, and you can refer them to the Oxford Dictionary to make your point.
Moving on, there is a word that has nothing to do with havoc, but is often mistakenly used as such.
Wreak vs Reek: The very bad smell of havoc
“The air force bombers reeked havoc on our enemies”
Do you think the military has mastered the art of creating the worst ever stink bombs? Or is it possible that our enemies smelled so strongly of havoc that our air force got a whiff of it? I didn’t even know havoc had a smell.
You could say:
“The disgusting odor of the sewers wreaked chaos among residents as they fled the dreadful miasma.”
But you could never say:
“Gosh that wreaks of ammonia!” or “The wreak of the sewers was disgusting!”
Well, I suppose you could write it if you wanted to, but it would be wrong, and everybody who reads it would know it was wrong.
Generally speaking, a bad odor “reeks” and can only “wreak” if it causes something else that is quite unpleasant to happen.
(Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library)