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Anxiously or Eagerly? It Depends.

The other day I was among a group saying goodbye to our friend Carol, who is traveling to several countries in the Middle East, places where we fear a bit for her safety. One friend, Elizabeth, told Carol, “We will anxiously await your return.”

Carol replied, “Don’t wait anxiously.

“Well, how should we wait? What’s the correct word?” Elizabeth wanted to know.

Several people jumped in with “Eagerly!”

Anxiously? Eagerly? What’s the difference? Was Elizabeth correct to use anxiously? Was Carol right to correct her?

graphic comparing the words "anxiously" and "eagerly"

According to many language experts, whether the adverb anxiously or eagerly is correct depends on the feeling you want to communicate in speech or writing. The same is true of the adjectives anxious and eager.

Anxious and anxiously convey a feeling of anxiety, stress, and worry:

  • I am anxious about not being prepared for my interview.
  • The child’s parents waited anxiously in the emergency room.
  • He was anxious that his account balance had dropped so low.

Eager and eagerly do not convey anxiety. They communicate enthusiasm and desire:

  • I am eager to meet my interview coach, who is supposed to be excellent.
  • The children’s parents waited eagerly in the audience.
  • He is eager to move into his newly decorated office.

Here is what style manuals and dictionaries say about anxious:

The Chicago Manual of Style: “Avoid it as a synonym for eager. The standard sense is ‘worried, distressed.’ ”

Garner’s Modern American Usage: “When no sense of uneasiness is attached to the situation, anxious isn’t the best word. In those instances, it displaces a word that might traditionally have been considered its opposite–namely, eager.” Garner classifies the evolving use of anxious for eager as Stage 4, which he defines as “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots).”

The Gregg Reference Manual: “Both anxious and eager mean “desirous,” but anxious also implies fear or concern.

The American Heritage College Dictionary: Anxious has a long history of use roughly as a synonym for eager, but many prefer that anxious be used only when its subject is worried or uneasy about the anticipated event.” The dictionary goes on to say that 52 percent of its Usage Panel members reject using anxious when the situation is without anxiety.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers as its third definition of anxious “ardently or earnestly wishing” as in “anxious to learn more.”

What is your view of the opening scene with my friends? Was Elizabeth correct when she said, “We will anxiously await your return”?

I eagerly await your comments.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “Anxiously or Eagerly? It Depends.”

  • I think anxiously is perfect, Lynn. You prefaced it with your assessment that “we fear a bit for her safety”. Anxiety reflects that concern.

  • Ooh! Good topic. I felt that your quotes above captured my thoughts. I agree that most people use the two interchangably and that they imply, to my ear, two different things. I would probably use “anxiously awaiting” and mean “eagerly awaiting” because anxiously awaiting is so frequently used to mean both. Frequently, when I’m awaiting someone, I am both anxious and eager. This dual feeling is all the more prounounced when the house is not clean yet. “Please get here, but not before I get done vacuuming the living room.”

  • Although it’s certainly appropriate to have a fair amount of anxiety in the situation described, I would try to avoid the word anxious so as to reassure Carol.

    The fact that Carol raised the issue immediately seems to indicate that she’s already anxious about the trip. Her friends need to be reassuring at that point and help her make the most of it. I vote for eagerly awaiting her return.

  • Hi, Terry, Jennifer, and Randy. Thanks for answering my question.

    Terry, like you, I think “anxiously” is perfect in Elizabeth’s sentence. You got exactly what I wanted to communicate. Yet I like Randy’s take on the question.

    Randy, how thoughtful of you to think about using “eagerly” to help Carol feel calm. I believe you caught the undercurrent of the converation.

    Jennifer, I loved your example! I feel that same way, eagerly awaiting company, yet anxiously hoping the house will be clean enough before they arrive.


  • Both words are really confusing, but this could get rid of depending on how they are used. These terms could mean desirous but I think anxious is the deeper one. The term “anxious” may also imply something feared of or something you are concerned about. Based on the situation given, I think the proper term to be used is anxious.

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