Anxious and Eager

Commonly Confused Words

anxious and eager
A student may be anxious about her grades and eager to see classes end.

Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

Although anxious has been used as a synonym for eager since the 18th century, many usage guides insist that anxious should be used only when a person is worried or uneasy about an anticipated event.

Definitions

The adjective anxious means uneasy, nervous, or fearful, especially about something that is about to happen. Anxious may also mean desiring something very much, often with a sense of unease.

The adjective eager means interested and excited--impatient to have or do something.



"Both words convey the notion of being desirous," says Theodore Bernstein, "but anxious has an underlay of faint apprehension" (The Careful Writer, 1998). See the usage notes below.

Examples

  • "True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future."
    (Seneca)
     
  • "I knew Father Malt would be off that evening for a convention in Chicago. The missionaries, who would fill in for him and conduct a forty hours' devotion on the side, belonged to an order just getting started in the diocese and were anxious to make a good impression."
    (J.F. Powers, "Death of a Favorite." The New Yorker, 1951)
     
  • "I have never read for entertainment, but rather for understanding and to satisfy my eager curiosity."
    (Bryant H. McGill)
     
  • "We had been told that Belgrade was a city that was reasonably cosmopolitan, and we were all eager for the bright lights."
    (Maya Angelou, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas. Random House, 1997)


    Usage Notes

    • "I prefer to avoid using anxious when I mean eager. Anxious is related to the word anxiety; it traditionally means 'worried, uneasy.' It's often used, though, where eager or keen would be more appropriate. You can be anxious about an upcoming exam, but you probably shouldn't tell friends you're anxious to see them this weekend. It's not that it's wrong, but it runs the risk of confusion."
      (Jack Lynch, "Anxious versus Eager," The English Language: A User's Guide. R. Pullins Company, 2008)
       
    • "The discovery that anxious should not be used to mean 'eager' seems to have been made in the U.S. in the early 20th century. It has since risen rapidly to become a shibboleth in American usage, appearing in books from Bierce 1909 to Garner 1998. Although Garner uses Fowler's term slipshod extension to describe the sense, Fowler himself (1926) called it a natural development. . . .

      "The objection to anxious in its 'eager' sense is an invention; the sense has long been standard."
      (Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, 2002)
       
    • "Anxious meaning 'eager' is unquestionably Standard English, even though some purists have long urged that we use anxious to mean only 'nervous, apprehensive, or fearful.'"
      (Kenneth George Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Columbia University Press, 1993)
       
    • "To use the word [anxious] merely as a synonym for eager is to give in to SLIPSHOD EXTENSION--e.g., 'He knows that motorists are anxious (read eager) to save on suspension parts and will give generously' (Christian Science Monitor)."
      (Bryan A. Garner, "Anxious." The Oxford Dictionary of American Style and Usage. Oxford University Press, 2000)


    Practice

    (a) "My daughter is just beginning the piano.

     These are her first lessons, she is eight, she is _____ and hopeful. Silently she sits beside me as we drive the nine miles to the town where the lessons are given; silently she sits beside me, in the dark, as we drive home."
    (John Updike, "The Music School." The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Knopf, 2003)

    (b) "The stewardess flung open the door, and someone opened an emergency door at the back, letting in the sweet noise of their continuing mortality—the idle splash and smell of heavy rain. _____ for their lives, they filed out of the doors and scattered over the cornfield in all directions, praying that the thread would hold."​
    (John Cheever, "The Country Husband." The Stories of John Cheever. Knopf, 1978)

    Answers to Practice Exercises: Anxious and Eager

    (a) "My daughter is just beginning the piano.

     These are her first lessons, she is eight, she is eager and hopeful. Silently she sits beside me as we drive the nine miles to the town where the lessons are given; silently she sits beside me, in the dark, as we drive home."
    (John Updike, "The Music School." The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Knopf, 2003)

    (b) "The stewardess flung open the door, and someone opened an emergency door at the back, letting in the sweet noise of their continuing mortality—the idle splash and smell of heavy rain. Anxious for their lives, they filed out of the doors and scattered over the cornfield in all directions, praying that the thread would hold."
    (John Cheever, "The Country Husband." The Stories of John Cheever. Knopf, 1978)