Consider the following two sentences:

Billy was nervous, as he only had 10 minutes to finish the exam.

Holly was about to meet Tom Cruise, which made her very nervous.

Can the word excited be used instead of the word nervous in this context?

I'm trying to figure out whether excited can be used instead of nervous or agitated - whether in a negative (as in Billy's case) or positive (as in Holly's case) meaning.

  • Welcome to EL&U. 'Excited' and 'nervous' are neither synonyms nor antonyms, in my own judgement. They mean different things. 'Confident' is the opposite of 'nervous' and 'calm' is the opposite of 'excited' I would say. – Nigel J Feb 5 '18 at 16:49
  • I have often found excited used that way in really old books, but it is not used that way today. – user277286 Feb 5 '18 at 18:58

Comparing the definitions of these two words as given by Merriam-Webster Dictionary online shows that excited suggests

a heightened state of energy, enthusiasm, eagerness, etc.

[Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/excited]

On the other hand, the meaning of nervous is

b : easily excited or irritated : jumpy

c : timid, apprehensive

nervous of strangers // a nervous smile

5 a : tending to produce nervousness or agitation : uneasy

a nervous situation // His face was twisted in nervous anticipation.

[Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nervousness]

Thus the meaning of 'nervous' is somewhat related to the meaning of 'excited', but they are not synonyms.

In practice, I find (based on these definitions and my 34 years long experience with the English language) that 'excited' is most often used in a positive sense while 'nervous' is generally used in a negative sense, except when it connotes anticipatory apprehension, which need not always be negative, but can possibly be considered neutral or even positive, depending on the context, as in your example (paraphrase):

She was filled with nervous anticipation to think that she was soon to meet the famous actor, whom she adored.

In short you cannot substitute 'excited' for 'nervous' or vice versa except when both words are appropriate in the particular context and the substitution will not change the meaning.

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One can be excited but not nervous (about to see a much-hyped movie), excited and nervous (about to meet a celebrity), or nervous but not excited (about to take a final exam). Nervousness and excitedness can often be experienced simultaneously, but they are not the same thing and are not always co-occurrent. In general, excited is not an all-purpose substitute for nervous. Even if they are both appropriate, as in your second example about Holly meeting a movie star, they express different aspects of how a person is feeling.

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