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Anxious and Eager

Commonly Confused Words

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Anxious and Eager

Adapted from The Writer's Art by James J. Kilpatrick (Andrews McMeel, 1984)

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 its subject is worried or uneasy about an anticipated event. "Both words convey the notion of being desirous," says Theodore Bernstein, "but anxious has an underlay of faint apprehension" (The Careful Writer, 1998). See Usage Notes, below.

Examples:

  • "True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future." (Seneca)

  • "I have never read for entertainment, but rather for understanding and to satisfy my eager curiosity." (Bryant H. McGill)

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."
    ("anxious," Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, 2002)


  • "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) "There is a great deal of difference between an _____ man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read." (Gilbert K. Chesterton)

(b) "No good work is ever done while the heart is hot and _____ and fretted." (Olive Schreiner)

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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