Anxious vs. Eager: How to Use the Right Word

Student with worried expression writing in notebook
A student may be anxious about their grades and eager to see classes end.

Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

"Anxious" has been used as a synonym for "eager" since the 18th century, but these words are not semantically equivalent. Many usage guides insist that "anxious" should take the form of concern and "eager" should take the form of excitement. James J. Kilpatrick described the difference between the terms in "The Writer’s Art": "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 coupled with a sense of unease. Merriam-Webster explains that if you are anxious about something, you tend to seek to "ease your discomfort" by making yourself less worried, concerned, or fearful.

How to Use Eager

The adjective "eager" means excited or impatient to have or do something. Theodore Bernstein explained in "The Careful Writer": "Both words convey the notion of being desirous, but anxious has an underlay of faint apprehension." Merriam Webster explains 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 around the 16th century.

Examples

Differentiating between "anxious" and "eager" allows you to accurately express the sentiments you want to convey in your writing or speaking. Some examples of the correct use of these terms include:

  • "I am anxious about catching a cold before my big performance." A cold is not something you want as it could hinder your performance. You might well be worried about catching a cold, so you would use the word "anxious."
  • "I am eager to buy a new outfit." In this case, you are saying you are looking forward to buying a new outfit. It is something you are expecting to do and feeling positively about, so the term you use would be "eager."
  • "We are eager to see your new car." Again, you are looking forward to seeing the new car, even excited by the prospect, so the correct word is "eager."
  • "The president was anxious about going to war." War would not be something the president would look forward to and they probably do their best to avoid it. The president would likely be worried about going to war—the inevitable loss of lives, the potential for massive destruction, and the huge economic costs. War would be something the president is worried, or anxious, about.

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, use "anxious" instead of "eager." For example, because you could say, "I"m worried about the operation," "anxious" would make more sense than "eager." If it is excitement you're trying to convey, "eager" is often a better fit.

Some propose mnemonic techniques that can help you decide which term to use as well. 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 the substitution word "anxiety." If you can work "anxiety" into the sentence, 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 not likely say, "I'm eager to have my son leave home."

Another way to know which word to use is to substitute the word "hopeful" for "eager," as John Updike wrote in "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."

Here, Updike showed that you can use "eager" and one of its synonyms, "hopeful," in the same sentence. You would not in this context say, "My daughter ... is anxious and hopeful," so you know the correct term is "eager."

Sources

  • Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: a Modern Guide to English Usage. Free Press, 1998.
  • “Can Anxious Be Used to Mean Eager?” Merriam-Webster.
  • Kilpatrick, James Jackson. The Writers Art. Andrews and McMeel, 1984.
  • Lynch, Jack. The English Language: a Userʼs Guide. Focus Pub./R Pullins Co., 2008.
  • 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, Jul. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/anxious-and-eager-1689539. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, July 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 September 17, 2021).