Tearing, Ripping, and Rending

By Maeve Maddox

English is rich in words to describe the act of cutting and pulling things apart, words like tear, rip, hack, slash, stab, and rend.

Writers of violent fiction–or journalists reporting the daily news–can choose just the right word to describe an injury:

A taxi driver hacked an American to death after an argument over a $1.60 fare, Thai officials said late Sunday.

[On a New York subway platform], a 24-year-old man was slashed with a Corona bottle in the neck, arms, and hands, and is recovering at Bellevue.

Likewise, writers of romance are able to convey degrees of emotional pain by using the words figuratively.

It’s the rejection that stabs you in the heart and crushes your soul.

Here are six verbs to describe tearing, ripping, and rending:

hack: This verb suggests heavy blows, possibly made in the heat of anger.

tear: In modern usage, this is the verb we use with paper or another flimsy substance. If complete destruction is meant, we say “tear to pieces,” or “tear in pieces.”

rip: This word can also be used of tearing paper, but carries a more forceful connotation.

rend: A bit old-fashioned, rend has a Biblical ring to it. Mourners rend their garments; the Lord threatens to rend Solomon’s kingdom from him. The past tense is rent: “When the town of Sunnydale slid into the hellmouth on ‘Buffy,’ my fellow fans and I rent our hair and blubbered.” (OED example)

NOTE: Rend is the verb in the expression “heart-rending”: “causing intense sorrow or emotional anguish.” Google Ngram Viewer indicates that the frequently heard eggcorn “heart-wrenching” first appeared in the 1950s.

slash: This word suggests a sweeping blow with a sword, although in our day, a broken beer bottle will do.

stab: This word implies the thrust of a short weapon, like a dagger.

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