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When Are You "Anxious" And When Are You "Eager"?

Here is the latest in a series of tips on usage and style shared by Mignon Fogarty, better known as  Grammar Girl. With students returning to school, Mignon asks if they're best described as "anxious" or "eager."

Depending on how you feel, you may be anxious or eager for school to start. To some people, anxious has more of a negative connotation than eager. You're eager for school to start if you're looking forward to it. You're anxious for school to start if you feel nauseous every time you think about it.
 
Anxious comes from the same root as anxiety. If you can remember that, you can remember that anxious isn't a good thing.
 
Anxious is evolving, though. The distinction between anxious and eager was much stronger in the seventeenth century. Today, many people use the words interchangeably.

  • I'm eager to see my best friend again. (standard)
  • I'm anxious to see the school bully. (standard)
  • I'm anxious to get our new puppy. (acceptable, but sometimes disputed)

For more help in how to navigate words with similar meanings, check out Vocabulary.com's "Choose Your Words" feature.


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Mignon Fogarty is better known as Grammar Girl. She is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network, author of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, and the creator of the iOS game Grammar Pop. Click here to read more articles by Mignon Fogarty.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 20th, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Toni
Anxious seems to be constrictive. Eager, on the other hand, seems to be open and seems to accept adventure. If I am tempted to say that I am anxious, I picture my mind and heart closed. With eager, however, I picture my mind and heart open.
Wednesday August 20th, 11:35 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
If we are worried about something, the word "anxious" is more appropriate to use that expression. On the other hand, if we feel positively towards any thing news or events, then "eager" fitted nicely there.
That's my opinion.
Wednesday August 20th, 7:04 PM
Comment by: William W. (USAF Academy, CO)
I am often: a) eager to eat lunch; b) eager to play WoW; c) eager to see my girl -- but I am never a) anxious to eat lunch. b) anxious to play WoW; d) anxious to see my girl. But, I can be a) anxious about lunch (where/when will I eat); b) anxious about WoW (will it fry my brain -- too late); c) anxious about my girl (what did I do wrong now?). It seems that "eager" is associated with "eager to _____" and anxious is associated with "anxious about ____".
Thursday August 21st, 10:17 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I like the way Jan Freeman put it in Write It Right, her 2009 book about language advice of the early 20th century: Eager and anxious overlap in meaning not because our speech is careless, but because eagerness and anxiety coexist in the human heart."
Thursday August 21st, 10:19 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
(There should be an open quotation mark after the colon in the previous comment--apologies!)
Friday August 22nd, 10:57 AM
Comment by: William W. (USAF Academy, CO)
Take "I am anxious to get going on this project". That sounds positive, but with a hint -- just a hint -- of apprehension. Compare: "I am eager to get going on this project". This keeps the positive aspect, but loses all sense of apprehension. It is (fairly) clear what "I am anxious about ____" means, and it is clear what "I am eager to _____" means. But saying "I am anxious to ______" ..... sounds as positive as "eager" but there is a shade of apprehension implied -- nice to have in case you need it.
Friday August 22nd, 2:40 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Mignon, this brief article is very interesting and informative - thank you! In addition to the eager/anxious clarification, it contains another word usage that continues to intrigue me ...

You noted that "You're eager for school to start if you're looking forward to it" - there's definitely a positive connotation. But really, we "look forward to" or "look ahead to" everything in the future - good, bad or unknown - don't we? Technically, if my parachute doesn't open, I look forward to an unfortunate landing. In the same sense, we "look back on" everything in the past, right? (In the parachute scenario, we'll need to do that very quickly.)

So how can we say that we are happy about something in the future? For example, at the end of an email I might write "I'm looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!" Technically, that doesn't indicate whether I'm happy or unhappy about the impending event. Likewise, If I say "I anticipate seeing you" there's no indication of how I feel about it. How about "I eagerly (or happily or cheerfully or with positive emotions) anticipate seeing you"? Oh, puh-leeze. We might say "I can't wait to see you" but that's pretty strong, and besides, we actually CAN wait, we just wish we didn't have to.

It seems that any way we try to rephrase "I'm looking forward to it" is inaccurate, too wordy/formal, or simply ridiculous.

Ah, 'tis a puzzlement. Maybe you, dear reader, can offer a solution.

By the way, Nancy, I really like that quote!

The Happy Quibbler
Friday August 22nd, 2:40 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Mignon, this brief article is very interesting and informative - thank you! In addition to the eager/anxious clarification, it contains another word usage that continues to intrigue me ...

You noted that "You're eager for school to start if you're looking forward to it" - there's definitely a positive connotation. But really, we "look forward to" or "look ahead to" everything in the future - good, bad or unknown - don't we? Technically, if my parachute doesn't open, I look forward to an unfortunate landing. In the same sense, we "look back on" everything in the past, right? (In the parachute scenario, we'll need to do that very quickly.)

So how can we say that we are happy about something in the future? For example, at the end of an email I might write "I'm looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!" Technically, that doesn't indicate whether I'm happy or unhappy about the impending event. Likewise, If I say "I anticipate seeing you" there's no indication of how I feel about it. How about "I eagerly (or happily or cheerfully or with positive emotions) anticipate seeing you"? Oh, puh-leeze. We might say "I can't wait to see you" but that's pretty strong, and besides, we actually CAN wait, we just wish we didn't have to.

It seems that any way we try to rephrase "I'm looking forward to it" is inaccurate, too wordy/formal, or simply ridiculous.

Ah, 'tis a puzzlement. Maybe you, dear reader, can offer a solution.

By the way, Nancy, I really like that quote!

The Happy Quibbler
Saturday August 23rd, 4:27 PM
Comment by: William W. (USAF Academy, CO)
Thanks for the conversation. Love it. “Looking forward to _____” seems to have only positive implications (except sarcasm). Now, we can take the phrase “look forward to ___” and break it down word by word, and could conclude that it implies a “look” in the “forward” direction, which, as mentioned, could be on any future scene, good or bad. But, we are dealing with an idiomatic phrase. The phrase is not just the sum of its parts, it takes on the usage history, which in this case is exclusively positive (is there a negative use of this phrase?). If someone said "I am looking forward to having a modestly trained dentist stick a long needle in my mouth and start using medieval iron instruments to chip at and drill on my teeth, just millimeters from nerves that have direct connections to my central nervous system" I would say that's not a common use of "looking forward to ___", unless of course the person was completely insane. Every quote of "looking forward to" I found (on google) was positive. How about "I dread going to class tomorrow" (a feeling I had quite often in my youth). I was certainly NOT "looking forward to going to class tomorrow", even though I could "look" "forward" and see the nun pointing at me.

-- here's a cute one I bumped into in the google search:

“I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward.” -- Charlotte Bronte
Thursday September 4th, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Willliam, thank you for sharing your observations, interpretations and other thoughts (it's too bad we don't have a one-word positive equivalent of "dread"). I especially like your description of a visit to the Little-Shop-of-Horrors dentist!

The Happy Quibbler

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