Despite the fact that they are often used interchangeably (and Merriam-Webster calls them synonyms), anxious and eager do not mean the same thing. “Both words convey the notion of being desirous,” says Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer, “but anxious has an underlay of faint apprehension.”
Anxious means worry, concern, distress, uneasiness—all negative connotations.
- Marie was anxious as she waited for the doctor’s diagnosis.
Those who argue that anxious should never be used as a synonym for eager overstate their case. Webster’s New College Dictionary includes this definition for anxious: eagerly wishing. If that’s the sense you wish to convey, it’s an appropriate use of the word.
- Henrietta was anxious to see her new grandchild.
In the case of a much-anticipated child, concern over the child’s safe delivery and eagerness to see the new baby, anxious seems the right word to use. And that is always our goal as writers—using the precise word.
Eager conveys enthusiasm, inpatient desire, or interest. Eager has an air of expecting something good.
- Marie was eager for a good report.
- The children were eager for summer vacation.