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

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.

"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?

Questions like these are exactly why I keep handy an old Oxford Universal Dictionary that was printed in the 1930s. This faded old tome tells me that, three decades before Berry types were telling people that "anxious" can't pinch hit for "eager," the dictionary had already laid down its rule that, yes, you can.

So there's no question that the people who say you can't use anxious as a synonym for eager go too far. But the people who say you shouldn't — well, I think they have a point.

"I'm anxious to see my husband" can make a situation in which he's in an airport holding flowers sound like he's sitting in the living room angrily waving a credit card bill. When you're actually looking forward to seeing him, "eager" does a much better job of getting this across.

The choice, to me, is similar to another issue I've written about. There's no rule that says you can't use "that" to refer to people, as in, "Here's the man that offered me a job." But "who," because it refers exclusively to people, makes the same sentence seem more alive, if you will: "Here's the man who offered me the job."

It's just another example where an incorrect message of "you can't" evolved out of the very wise message of "perhaps you shouldn't."

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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