Heart-rending and Gut-wrenching

By Maeve Maddox

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Although widely used by a great many speakers, an expression that makes me cringe is “heart-wrenching.”

Gut-wrenching is fine. Guts twist, both literally and figuratively. And in the bad old days people had their innards pulled out as a form of torture and execution, hence the verb to disembowel and the expression to draw and quarter.

To me, something described as “gut-wrenching” is frightening, the way it’s used in this reader’s comment:

In a mystery the reader is trying to figure out what is going on and the puzzle is more of a brain teaser, but not a gut-wrenching life and death struggle.

“Heart-wrenching,” on the other hand, always strikes my ears as mistake for heart-rending.

I suppose that an argument could be made for either heart-rending or “heart-wrenching,” but it seems to me that when someone says, “The sight of the displaced earthquake victims was heart-rending,” the emotion felt is probably more gentle than the violent word wrench would suggest.

wrench: trans. To twist or turn (a thing) forcibly or with effort; to jerk or pull with a violent twist

A strong argument against “heart-wrenching” is that neither the OED nor Merriam-Webster includes it, while both the British and American dictionaries have entries for heart-rending/heartrending.

heart-rending: That rends the heart; terribly distressing. So heart-rending vbl. n., terrible distress, pangs of anguish; heart-rendingly adv.

heartrending: causing intense grief, anguish, or pain

I suggest reserving wrenching attached to gut for things that cause fear, and rending with heart to describe emotional pain caused by the sight of something truly piteous.

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11 Responses to “Heart-rending and Gut-wrenching”

  • phil dragonetti

    I would like to point out that heart-RENDING is not all that gentle for the definition of the verb “rend” is quite violent.

    Definition of REND transitive verb
    1: to remove from place by violence : wrest
    2: to split or tear apart or in pieces by violence
    3: to tear (the hair or clothing) as a sign of anger, grief, or despair
    4a : to lacerate mentally or emotionally b : to pierce with sound c : to divide (as a nation) into contesting factions

    intransitive verb
    1: to perform an act of tearing or splitting
    2: to become torn or split


    See ya later,

  • pentamom

    My personal peeve on this one is “heart-rendering.” If you know what rendering actually is, that’s an extremely disgusting image.

    And I agree with Phil — there’s nothing gentle about “rending,” it’s meant to describe a very intense reaction. Still, I prefer rending to wrenching if only because rending comes from is a biblical illusion — Joel 2:13 — and is therefore a nicer literary turn.

  • pentamom

    Sorry about the bad editing above.

  • Maeve

    I was so focused on drawing a line between heartrending and “heartwrenching” that I didn’t consider the more violent aspect of rend. The image I have with heartrending is that of the poor heart breaking in two, while remaining in place. With “heartwrenching” I see it being pulled out, à la Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

    I think I’ll write a post on rend.


  • Deborah H

    My thinking was more in line with Phil’s, and Pentamom, too. I grew up in cattle country, and where there are cows, there are rendering plants, which “process” (render) all kinds of packer plant carcasses (beeves, hogs), other dead animals, and road kill.

    Rendering plants recycle everything 🙂

  • EnglishOnline

    this is a way,, how we master English easily !
    and it’s a way… I think GooD…
    coz this is an Opinion to do the best for master english 😀

  • phil dragonetti

    There seems to be a bit of confusion between the word “rend” and the word “render”. They look alike—but thay have different meanings and have different origins.

    “Rend” comes from Old English “renda” which means to tear.

    “Render’ comes from Latin “reddere” which means to return.

    Yes–They do look alike but are not connected in any way and have different meanings.

  • Kathy

    Using the concept of rending = torn in two, I disagree with the author.

    If you had ever heard the scream of a woman who was just told her 16-year-old had committed suicide and her 18-year-old had found him, you would know that there are some events that are heart-wrenching. It was not gut-wrenching or heart-rending, it was heart-wrenching as I listened to my secretary that day.

  • Gary Kleiman

    I would like to here your comments on ability vs competence;
    my students always say ability whe they mean competence.

    Many thanks


  • Steve

    The term heart-rending has a direct correlation to Jewish funeral lore. The rending of garments by the mourner prior to the funeral service is called Keriah.

    It where a pocket or the cloth over a mourners heart is ripped and then repaired, with the mark where the repair has been done symbolising the scar where the heart, which has a rend in it. It’s a direct reference to the biblical tenet of rending one’s flesh at the loss of a loved one which is forbidden under Jewish law.

  • Barb

    This has been one of my pet peeves for years! Although it is easy to confuse the two, guts literally “wrench” when one is shocked or faced with the unexpected, to wit, the adrenaline-induced flight-or-fight response. Conversely, when one’s heart “rends”, one is experiencing grief and heartbreak. It sets my teeth on edge when I hear those who should know better use “heart-wrenching”, which in my mind can only describe cardiac ventricular fibrillation.

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