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A copy editor friend of mine once told me that instead of saying for example "I'm anxious to see the new movie," I should say "I'm eager to see the new movie."

This seemed logical to me—after all, there's no anxiety involved in my desire to see the new movie. But I've noticed that almost no one, including speakers whose language skills I admire, talks this way. Most people (in my experience) say "anxious to" even in situations when they are clearly feeling eager and not anxious.

I'm interested to hear other people's opinions on this. Is it a British/American difference?


ADDED:

Nohat's response below answers my question: The non-anxious sense of "anxious to" is common enough to have made it into at least some dictionaries. I note that the New Oxford American Dictionary (bundled with Mac OS X) doesn't include this sense of "anxious to". In fact they have a usage note that reads

Anxious and eager both mean 'looking forward to something,' but they have different connotations. Eager suggests enthusiasm about something, a positive outlook: : I'm eager to get started on my vacation. Anxious implies worry about something: : I'm anxious to get started before it rains.

So apparently there is not consensus amongst dictionary editors.

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Eager is correct. Anxious has unfortunately taken over a meaning it was never intended to have. Another example of over misuse hurting our language. –  Tim Sep 23 '10 at 16:01
    
@Tim words do not have intentions. –  nohat Sep 23 '10 at 16:31
    
@nohat. I am not sure what you mean by that. The word did not have the intent - "Creators" of the language had the intent for that word. Are you just trying to be pedantic or are you disputing that anxious should not mean the same thing as eager? –  Tim Sep 23 '10 at 16:58
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@Tim: When it comes to language, there are facts, and then there are opinions. I find facts to be much more compelling and interesting than opinions. –  nohat Sep 23 '10 at 17:15
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Finally, there are no “creators” who “intend” words to mean something. That’s just not how language works. Words’ meanings can be observed as emergent properties of the population that uses them. –  nohat Sep 23 '10 at 17:33

6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Merriam-Webster give sense 3 for anxious: “ardently or earnestly wishing <anxious to learn more>”.

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Doesn't "anxious to (do something)" usually mean eager or excited, more often than "having anxiety"? If we mean "having anxiety" then we usually use "anxious about". –  Kosmonaut Sep 22 '10 at 20:23
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Yes, but it is likely that it is a meaning which was added after all the misuse. –  Tim Sep 23 '10 at 16:02
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You call it nonsense, I call your permissive interpretation a dilution of the language. We will likely not agree on much when it comes to this. Your opinion seems to imply that if I just start using a word to mean anything I like and then other people do then that is ok. I'd rather not take that view. –  Tim Sep 23 '10 at 17:01
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@Tim language change happens. Words’ meanings drift over time. Many things that are grammatical today were considered “errors” by people long ago. You are right that there was no reason to “make” anxious an ambiguous term, but it is ambiguous now, whether you like it or not. Language has never been beholden to “logic”. Protesting that the word didn’t mean it as some time in the past doesn’t change the fact that anxious does indeed today have as one of its meanings “ardently or earnestly wishing”. –  nohat Sep 23 '10 at 17:13
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It seems silly to object to a sense of a word that has been in use for more than 200 years—*anxious* meant earnestly wishing long before you were born and will continue to mean it long after you die. Users of English have no obligation to be rational in their own choice of usages, so you should do as you like. But I will object to characterizing well-established usages as “misuse” because I think it’s misleading to readers, and I will object to moaning about “misuse” “harming” the language without some kind of substantiation. –  nohat Sep 23 '10 at 21:41

Where are you located? This may be a British/American difference, or it may just be a matter of regional dialect. I'm a native speaker of American English (New England region, primarily Connecticut) and would always say "eager to".

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I am also a native American English speaker (grew up in the north, now in the south) and I say "anxious to" although it has always struck me as the wrong phrase to use. –  michaelkoss Sep 22 '10 at 19:02
    
I'd more be likely to say "I'm keen to" rather than either of the above (I grew up in London). –  Steve Melnikoff Sep 22 '10 at 22:49
    
@Steve - I would understand "I'm keen to" and it would still sound more correct to me than "I'm anxious to" when the speaker is looking forward to the experience rather than dreading it. –  ssakl Sep 23 '10 at 14:37

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a page of quotes showing anxious being used with the meaning "eager", by writers like Carroll, Byron, Melville, Dickens, Stevenson.

Their conclusion:

Anyone who says that careful writers do not use anxious in its "eager" sense has simply not examined the available evidence.

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I would add that using "anxious" in place of "eager" does seem to be more common in speaking. Written English seems to still recognize the nuance. I've noticed the "anxious" used in many locations, so I don't think it is an American versus British issue.

I agree that your use of "eager" is more appropriate because you do not experience anxiety. This particular word choice has always stood out to me because of the book An Incomplete Education, which I first read in junior high school. There is a section where they discuss commonly confused words and give (hilarious) stories to illustrate the difference. "Anxious" versus "Eager" was my favorite by far, and has caused any misuse to stand out to me.

Rough quote of the illustration from memory: "You are not anxious to have dinner with oldest married friends; you are eager to have dinner with them. That is unless you have been sleeping with one of them for the past six months. In that case you ARE anxious."

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Does it not have to do with the degree of precision one seeks in word usage? "Anxious to" may now be acceptable, but it has a broader meaning and so is more ambiguous. "Eager to" has a more precise meaning and so is to be preferred.

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this is more of a question than an answer. –  virmaior Feb 16 at 17:47

I like this page. The “happy anticipation” of eager vs. the “dread” of anxious. But, I have often heard comments such as “I am anxious to get started” which seems perfectly wonderful, and also seems to express a hinterland between the “happy and dread” interpretations. IN other words, it could have been phrased “I am eager to get started” but then the hint of uncertainty is lost. Let’s not lose that!

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