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Anxious or Eager?

Anxious and eager have different meanings but are often confused. Learn the difference here.

By
Mignon Fogarty

Anxious means “worried or uneasy.” It’s often confused with the word eager, which means “full of keen desire.”

To some, anxious has more of a negative connotation than eager. You're eager for your long-distance boyfriend's plane to arrive, unless you're going to break up with him. Then you're more likely to be anxious about his arrival because you’re dreading a confrontation.

 

Anxious is evolving, though. The distinction between anxious and eager was much stronger in the seventeenth century. Today, many people use the words interchangeably. Three major dictionaries imply that it’s OK to use anxious to mean “eager,” from dictionary.com saying it's fully standard to the American Heritage Dictionary saying resistance is waning. Garner’s Modern English Usage says using anxious to mean “eager” is ubiquitous.

Here are some examples of anxious and eager:

‘Eager’

•       I'm eager to see the dessert tray. (standard)

Nobody would dispute that—the dessert tray is a good thing—unless you’re on a diet. OK, people who can’t have dessert may dispute that sentence, but in general, most people will be eager to see the dessert tray.

An interesting usage quirk is that apparently, this positive meaning of eager is specific to English according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Eager has many obsolete meanings that are negative that came from French, but the more positive “full of keen desire or longing” definition is an English development.

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‘Anxious’

•       I'm anxious to see my ex-wife. (standard)

Since seeing an ex-spouse usually causes some anxiety—at least some negative feelings—most people are likely to agree that anxious is the right word for that sentence.

Now we get to the more traditionally problematic use of anxious:

•       I'm anxious to get our new puppy. (acceptable, but sometimes disputed)

Generally, getting a new puppy is a good thing, something you’d look forward to, something you’d be eager to have happen. Eager is a perfectly good word for that sentence—I’m eager to get our new puppy—but sometimes people use anxious in such sentences, and nearly all language authorities say that’s OK too.

anxious or eager

Anxious’ Versus ‘Eager’: How to Remember the Difference

The best memory trick to remember when to use anxious is that it’s related to the word anxiety.

The Quick and Dirty Tip is if you want to be safe and never be criticized (at least not about your use of the word anxious), use anxious only when there’s a sense of anxiety, and reserve eager to describe your feelings about positive future events.

 

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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