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A Word, Please: Eager to use the best word for the job

September 21, 2012|By June Casagrande

You hear it all the time: "I'm really anxious for my vacation to begin." "I love visiting my grandmother, so I'm very anxious to see her."

It's almost as though some people are eager to replace eager with anxious. But, of course, that makes other people very anxious indeed.

The choice between "anxious" and "eager" is one of those iconic grammar issues that make editors and word nerds sit up and pay attention.

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"Anxious," style guides and sticklers say, should not be used as a synonym for "eager." The word "anxious" has a negative connotation. It suggests anxiety. Whereas "eager" is full of happy anticipation. So, these advice-givers say, you shouldn't use the negative one to do the job of the happy one.

And to hear them talk, you'd think it's a firm rule.

"The word anxious should be used only when anxiety is involved. It should not be used as a synonym for eager," wrote Thomas Elliott Berry in the 1961 book, "The Most Common Mistakes in English Usage."

The idea lives on today, including in the influential Chicago Manual of Style: "Anxious: Avoid it as a synonym for 'eager.' The standard sense is worried or distressed."

That's my policy too. Whether I'm editing or writing, I like to choose the best word for the job. So the one that has a negative connotation seems better suited to negative contexts, while the more positive-sounding "eager" lends some extra happiness to happy situations.

But just because a lot of us think it's better to reserve "anxious" for bad stuff and use "eager" for good stuff doesn't mean you have to.

Here's Webster's New World College Dictionary: "Anxious: 1. having or showing anxiety; uneasy in mind; apprehensive; worried. 2. causing or full of anxiety: 'an anxious hour.' 3. eagerly wishing: 'anxious to do well.'"

Webster's New World isn't alone. Merriam-Webster's allows anxious to mean "ardently or earnestly wishing: 'anxious to learn more.'" And American Heritage Dictionary says it can mean "earnestly desirous" or "eager."

That's a pretty solid consensus. But it still leaves open this question: Is this a new phenomenon, some recent change to the meaning of the word? Was the Berry book right in 1961 and wrong today only because the times and, consequently, the language, have changed?

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