CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author

The difference between anxious and eager

TLDR: You would be anxious meeting your new boyfriend’s parents, but eager to start your holiday.

Anxious and eager. These two words can sometimes be used interchangeably, but probably not as often as you think.

anxious (adjective)—feeling nervous or worrying about something or a situation that has an uncertain outcome; experiencing extreme eagerness or concern to see something occur

Yvette was anxious about her upcoming operation.

It was an anxious moment on the sideline when the goalkeeper positioned his defenders for the free kick.

My professors were anxious that I completed my degree.

Emma’s parents were anxious to see their daughter perform well.

eager (adjective)—a strong desire to have some action performed or a task undertaken; interested or expectant expression and/or tone of voice

I was eager to get on the pitch and score a few goals.

Scar watched eagerly as the hyenas circled the two cubs.

Children are always eager for new challenges and activities.

At the mention of gold, twelve eager faces turned towards the businessmen.

As you can see, eager implies a certain impatient desire for something to happen, while anxious is more centred on the fear of something going wrong, often causing disappointment and utter failure.

While some sentences by themselves could use both anxious and eager, with some context, they are not always so interchangeable. For example:

Bob was anxious to begin his new job.

Bob was eager to begin his new job.

Here, Bob could be either eager or anxious to begin his new job—many people are afraid of making that first step, after all! However, if this sentence occurred within a larger portion of text, then it might dictate which of these two words best describes the situation.

For instance, Bob might really need the money to pay off a debt or even a ransom, explaining that he is afraid of what would happen should he fail to impress his superiors in his new role. In this situation, anxious is the better word to use because he is very nervous. However, if Bob was excited about his new job and the opportunities ahead, then eager would be the better word to use.

Similarly, Yvette was anxious about her upcoming operation, presumably because she was nervous about the procedure itself. Having gone under the knife a few times myself, I can’t blame her! However, if we discovered that Yvette had a lot of health problems and this operation was going to solve them all, then she might be more eager than anxious for the operation to begin so she could reap the benefits.

As you can see, it quite often comes down to context when deciding which of these two words to use. If someone is nervous about an outcome, use anxious. If someone is excited or keen about something being done, then eager is probably best to use.

Hope that helps! Happy writing.

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