Anxious vs. Eager: How to Use the Right Word

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

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"Anxious" has been used as a synonym for "eager" since the 18th century, but many usage guides insist that "anxious" should be used only when a person is worried or uneasy about an anticipated event. Frederick William Hamilton may have given one of the best explanations more than a century ago in his 1918 book, "Word Study and English Grammar" when he wrote," 'Anxious' should not be confused with desirous. It means 'feeling anxiety.' "

James J. Kilpatrick,  in "The Writer’s Art," described the difference between the terms, when he wrote: "To be anxious about something is to be worried or uneasy about it. To be eager is keenly to desire something."

How to Use Anxious

The adjective "anxious" means uneasy, nervous, or fearful, especially about something that is about to happen. "Anxious" may also mean worrying about something, often with a sense of unease. Merriam-Webster explains in its "Usage Notes" that if you are anxious about something, you tend to seek to "ease your discomfort," or to make yourself less worried, concerned, or fearful.

How to Use Eager

The adjective "eager" means interested and excited—impatient to have or do something. Theodore Bernstein explained in "The Careful Writer" that "Both words convey the notion of being desirous, but anxious has an underlay of faint apprehension." Merriam Webster, again in its "Usage Notes," says that eager is actually the older of the two words, dating to the 13th century, and it took on its current meaning of "desiring" something in the 16th century.

Examples

Despite the fact that Websters said "eager" is the older term dating only the 13 century—which, of course, would make the word "anxious" more recent—Seneca, a noted first-century Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist, used the term anxious when he said: "True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future."

Seneca used the term as a modifier for a noun, and an idea noun at that: "anxious dependence." Today, it's more common to hear the term or see it in print in connection with a to-be verb (such as "is," "am," "are," or "were"), but Seneca's use would not be considered incorrect, even today. Other examples of "anxious" and "eager" include:

  • "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.
  • "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." 
  • "I have never read for entertainment, but rather for understanding and to satisfy my eager curiosity."—Bryant H. McGill, author, activist, and social entrepreneur.
  • "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."

How to Remember the Difference

You would never use "eager" when you are worried about something; for example, you would never say, "I'm eager to have that operation" or "I'm eager to attend the funeral." If you can substitute the word "worry" for the term, don't use "eager." For example, you know that you could say, "I"m worried about the operation" or "I'm worried about attending the funeral." Since you can use "worry" in those cases, just substitute the word "anxious," as in "I'm anxious about having that operation" or "I'm anxious about going to the funeral."

But, others propose mnemonic techniques that may work better. Jack Lynch in "The English Language: A User's Guide," 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."

Here, Lynch uses likely a better substitution word: "anxiety." If you can work "anxiety" into the sentence, then use "anxious." For example, "I have great anxiety about my son leaving home" could be reworded as, "I'm anxious about my son leaving home." A worried parent would never likely say, "I'm eager to have my son leave home," unless their offspring is a real difficulty to have around or unless the offspring is well into their 30s.

Another way to know which word to use is to substitute the word "hopeful" for "eager," as John Updike wrote in his story, "The Music School":

"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."

Updike here showed how you can use "eager" and one of its synonyms, "hopeful," in the same sentence. You would never say in this context, "My daughter...is anxious and hopeful," so you know the correct term would be "eager."

Sources

  • Angelou, Maya. Singin and Swingin and Gettin Merry like Christmas. Virago, 2010.
  • A Quote from Letters from a Stoic.” Goodreads.
  • Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: a Modern Guide to English Usage. Free Press, 1998.
  • Can Anxious Be Used to Mean Eager?” Merriam-Webster.
  • Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. Vintage, 2007.
  • Kilpatrick, James Jackson. The Writers Art. Andrews and McMeel, 1984.
  • Lynch, Jack. The English Language: a Userʼs Guide. Focus Pub./R Pullins Co., 2008.
  • McGill, Bryant. “Bryant McGill Quotes: I Have Never Read for Entertainment, but Rather...” FamousQuotes.
  • Powers, J. F., and Denis Donoghue. The Stories of J.F. Powers. New York Review Books, 2000.
  • Updike, John. The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Anxious vs. Eager: How to Use the Right Word." ThoughtCo, Jun. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/anxious-and-eager-1689539. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 6). Anxious vs. Eager: How to Use the Right Word. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/anxious-and-eager-1689539 Nordquist, Richard. "Anxious vs. Eager: How to Use the Right Word." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/anxious-and-eager-1689539 (accessed June 19, 2021).