The following sentences offer a choice between anxious and eager. Which word is more accurate in each case?
- Our children are (anxious/eager) to go to Disney World, but my husband and I are (anxious/eager) about the cost of the trip.
- Having heard on the morning news that the stock market was sluggish, we are (anxious about/eager to learn) the current market value of the stocks we purchased yesterday.
- Having heard on the morning news that the stock market had opened strong, we are (anxious about/eager to learn) the current market value of the stocks we purchased yesterday.
At first glance, the adjectives anxious and eager seem interchangeable. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary lists anxious as a synonym for eager and vice versa. Like all synonyms, however, each word bears a slightly different meaning.
To be anxious is to be uneasy, to be worried, to feel a sense of dread or disquietude. You may have felt anxious about taking your driver’s test or about going on a job interview or blind date. To be eager, on the other hand, is to be pleasantly excited, to be looking forward to something with hopeful and positive anticipation. Many of us will vividly recall how eager we were (and maybe still are!) to open our presents on Christmas morning or to move into our first solo apartment.
As Webster’s clearly notes, whereas anxious means “characterized by extreme uneasiness of mind or brooding fear about some contingency,” eager means “marked by enthusiastic or impatient desire or interest.” We can remember the difference by recalling that the adjective anxious resembles anxiety, its noun counterpart.
Thus, in sentence 1, the children would be eager (enthusiastic, perhaps even impatiently so) to go to Disney World, while their parents would likely be anxious (worried) about the cost of the trip.
Another way to distinguish between these two words is to remember that eager is often followed by the to of an infinitive, whereas anxious is often followed by a preposition, most commonly about. We are eager to do or to be something, but we are anxious about something. If we are tempted to use an infinitive after the word anxious (as in “we were anxious to go on vacation”), most likely we should be using eager instead.
Feelings about the current market value of our stocks can be marked by either enthusiasm or worry, depending on what we have recently heard about the state of the stock market. Since the writer in sentence 2 has heard reports that the market has been sluggish, the phrase “anxious about” more accurately expresses uneasiness and perhaps even anxiety.
In sentence 3, however, the writer will be eager, having heard news of a strong market opening.
For further reading, scroll down on this page to read Webster’s astute commentary about anxious and eager and to see the helpful list of nuanced synonyms for anxious.
TEST YOURSELF: Which word—eager or anxious—is the better choice in each sentence?
- We were ___________ to find out what grade we had earned on our history exam because we had studied well and felt as though we had answered each question thoroughly.
- The board of directors was __________ about having to cut each department’s budget by 15 percent, for they knew that some people would lose their jobs.
- I was _________ about buying a new car because I was not sure I could afford one.
- I was _________ to buy a new car even though I was not sure I could afford one.
- We were ___________ concerning the plans for a new hazardous waste disposal site near our home.