Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Anxious vs. Eager

I  hate to pick on CNN, but it happened again. I heard another grammatical error from a broadcaster who should know better: Wolf Blitzer used the word anxious today when he meant eager. In standard usage, to be anxious is to be filled with anxiety. A person who is looking forward to an event with pleasure, rather than gnawing uncertainty, is eager.

Does it matter? In casual conversation, probably not. Most people don’t know the difference, which suggests that the distinction will be lost before long. But eager is the more precise word. It doesn’t lend overtones of worry or distress. So if you’re trying to convey unwavering happiness, use eager.

In some circumstances, though, the ambiguity of anxious can work in your favor. It can add an undercurrent of tension to an otherwise benign or celebratory mood. In an essay, it can be ironic. In dialogue, it can betray a character’s nervousness about what ought to be a happy event: “I’m anxious to pick out my wedding dress!”

In most discourse, however, eager is the better choice. To grammarphiles like me, anxious sounds wrong; to sticklers, it is wrong, and they may  fault you for it. If you break the rules, at least do it knowingly so you won’t be caught off guard.

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