No need to be anxious about “anxious vs. eager”

Browsing through the book, Woe is I (1996) which we’ve referenced in this blog several times, I came across O’Conner’s use of the words eager and anxious. These words often appear on lists of words usually confused, though O’Conner was discussing them in relation to the misuse of infinitives.

She includes anxious in a list of words that should not be followed by infinitives. Here’s her point from page 63 of her book:

I was anxious about going. Not: I was anxious to go. With the infinitive, use eager instead: I was eager to go.

When I read this, I was struck that she used eager and anxious interchangeably. Again, my editor/English teacher’s bell went off and the proverbial red pencil came out, since traditional grammar and usage distinguishes between these words and scorns mixing them up.

Both are adjectives, but as Richard Norquist on Thought.com writes, anxious means uneasy, nervous, or fearful, especially about something that is about to happen. On the other hand, eager means interested and excited–impatient to have or do something. Consider this example from Norquist:

A student may be anxious about her grades and eager to see classes end.
Yet O’Conner’s use of them as identical should not have been surprising since Kenneth George Wilson in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) states that “[A]nxious meaning ‘eager’ is unquestionably Standard English.” (Qtd by Nordquist). Wilson goes on to note that language purists still insist on the distinction – that anxious should be used when we mean only “nervous, apprehensive, or fearful.”

How did the rule condemning the use of anxious for eager come about?

This is another interesting example of prescriptivist usage, a “rule” becoming quickly entrenched despite the actual and long history of these words as being identical. Early in the twentieth century some usage handbooks began insisting on the distinction. Examples include Ambrose Bierce’s 1909 book, Write it Right, and the 1918 book, Word Study and English Grammar, in which Frederick William Hamilton declares: “Anxious should not be confused with desirous. It means ‘feeling anxiety.’” Such pronouncements continued into the twenty-first century, including The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (2015), which states “Anxious means uneasy or worried. Avoid the less precise sense as a synonym for eager.” (Both qtd in merriam-webster.com).

Not all 20th century usage books agreed. Early editions of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Usage, including the revised ones, either did not have an entry for anxious or contained a brief comment saying that objections to the uses of the word for eager are “negligible” because both are “natural developments” and both occur frequently (31). In fact, as pointed out by merriam-webster.com, several thousand people—including Jane Austen, Kingsley Amis, Lord Byron, Flannery O’Connor—have been using anxious to mean eager for hundreds of years, indeed for more than 450 years, and for most of the that time, people were not bothered by the interchangeable use.

A 2002 print version, Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, agrees, calling the objection to anxious in its “eager” sense an invention: “The discovery that anxious should not be used to mean ‘eager’ seems to have been made in the U.S. in the early 20th century. It has since risen rapidly to become a shibboleth in American usage.” Labeling this rule a shibboleth  highlights that this particular word has been used to distinguish one group (purists, elitists) from others (the less educated), especially since, as implicit in the word shibboleth, this usage is outmoded or no longer important – if it ever was. (Nordquist, https://www.lexico.com/).

Some contemporary stylists can say that the words mean different things (quickanddirtytips.com) or that writers should stick to their “traditional” definitions
(inpressionedit.com), even though the distinction as we’ve seen was a contrivance of  some 20th century purists – the words have been interchangeable for nearly 500 years. Again writers need to recognize that with any word choice or construction, some people will criticize it, some will praise it, and some will not notice it.

FYI: Another set that appears on list of commonly confused words is the pair imply vs. infer. Many writers find these words are easy to mix up since their meanings are closely associated. However, imply and infer are opposites. To imply is to hint at something, to suggest or express indirectly. To infer is to draw a conclusion or make an educated guess: “You pick up on the message hidden ‘between the lines,’ so to speak,” as Richard Nordquist explains.

His informative post about this pair explains that the difference is in your point of view: the speaker implies and the listener infers. Here are some examples he provides:

I’m sorry that what I said implied a negative opinion about her artwork. I just wasn’t sure what to think at the moment.

If researchers infer conclusions from bad survey data, an entire study might have to be redone because it is not accurate.

To distinguish between imply and infer, Nordquist suggests using this trick: “Look at the words alphabetically. Imply comes before infer. The coded message that someone implies needs to come first, before the receiver can decode it and infer its meaning.”

Though some people may feel strongly about their using these word “correctly,” it is not as heated a controversy as others we have discussed, such as eager and anxious or alright and all right. In fact, some dictionaries cite infer as a synonym for imply which may imply that language is changing to reflect usage.

(Material referenced or adapted from Woe is I; Richard Nordquist; merriam-webster.com; lexico.com; quickanddirtytips.com; inpressionedit.com.)

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