Arrant Pedantry

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Overanxious about Ambiguity

As my last post revealed, a lot of people are concerned—or at least pretend to be concerned—about the use of anxious to mean “eager” or “excited”. They claim that since it has multiple meanings, it’s ambiguous, and thus the disparaged “eager” sense should be avoided. But as I said in my last post, it’s not really ambiguous, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply being uncooperative.

Anxious entered the English language in the the early to mid-1600s in the sense of “troubled in mind; fearful; brooding”. But within a century, the sense had expanded to mean “earnestly desirous” or “eager”. That’s right—the allegedly new sense of the word was already in use before the United States declared independence.

These two meanings existed side by side until the early 1900s, when usage commentators first decided to be bothered by the “eager” sense. And make no mistake—this was a deliberate decision to be bothered. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage includes this anecdote from Alfred Ayres in 1901:

Only a few days ago, I heard a learned man, an LL.D., a dictionary-maker, an expert in English, say that he was anxious to finish the moving of his belongings from one room to another.

“No, you are not,” said I.

“Yes, I am. How do you know?”

“I know you are not.”

“Why, what do you mean?”

“There is no anxiety about it. You are simply desirous.”

Ayres’s correction has nothing to do with clarity or ambiguity. He obviously knew perfectly well what the man meant but decided to rub his nose in his supposed error instead. One can almost hear his self-satisfied smirk as he lectured a lexicographer—a learned man! a doctor of laws!—on the use of the language he was supposed to catalog.

A few years later, Ambrose Bierce also condemned this usage, saying that anxious should not be used to mean “eager” and that it should not be followed by an infinitive. As MWDEU notes, anxious is typically used to mean “eager” when it is followed by an infinitive. But it also says that it’s “an oversimplification” to say that anxious is simply being used to mean “eager”. It notes that “the word, in fact, fairly often has the notion of anxiety mingled with that of eagerness.” That is, anxious is not being used as a mere synonym of eager—it’s being used to indicate not just eagerness but a sort of nervous excitement or anticipation.

MWDEU also says that this sense is the predominant one in the Merriam-Webster citation files, but a search in COCA doesn’t quite bear this out—only about a third of the tokens are followed by to and are clearly used in the “eager” sense. Google Books Ngrams, however, shows that to is by far the most common word that immediately follows anxious; that is, people are anxious to do something far more often than they’re anxious about something.

This didn’t stop one commenter from claiming that not only is this use of anxious confusing, but she’d literally never encountered it before. It’s hard to take such a claim seriously when this use is not only common but has been common for centuries.

It’s also hard to take seriously the claim that it’s ambiguous when nobody can manage to find an example that’s actually ambiguous. A few commenters offered made-up examples that seemed designed to be maximally ambiguous when presented devoid of context. They also ignored the fact that the “eager” sense is almost always followed by an infinitive. That is, as John McIntyre pointed out, no English speaker would say “I was anxious upon hearing that my mother was coming to stay with us” or “I start a new job next week and I’m really anxious about that” if they meant that they were eager or excited.

Another commenter seemed to argue that the problem was that language was changing in an undesirable way, saying, “It’s clearly understood that language evolves, but some of us might prefer a different or better direction for that evolution. . . . Is evolution the de facto response for any misusage in language?”

But this comment has everything backwards. Evolution isn’t the response to misuse—claims of misuse are (occasionally) the response to evolution. The word anxious changed in a very natural way, losing some of its negative edge and being used in a more neutral or positive way. The same thing happened to the word care, which originally meant “to sorrow or grieve” or “to be troubled, uneasy, or anxious”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet nobody complains that everyone is misusing the word today.

That’s because nobody ever decided to be bothered by it as they did with anxious. The claims of ambiguity or undesired language change are all post hoc; the real objection to this use of anxious was simply that someone decided on the basis of etymology—and in spite of established usage—that it was wrong, and that personal peeve went viral and became established in the usage literature.

It’s remarkably easy to convince yourself that something is an error. All you have to do is hear someone say that it is, and almost immediately you’ll start noticing the error everywhere and recoiling in horror every time you encounter it. And once the idea that it’s an error has become lodged in your brain, it’s remarkably difficult to dislodge it. We come up with an endless stream of bogus arguments to rationalize our pet peeves.

So if you choose to be bothered by this use of anxious, that’s certainly your right. But don’t pretend that you’re doing the language a service.

21 Responses to Overanxious about Ambiguity

  1. Catherine says:

    This reminds me of the story about the man who caught his wife in bed with his best friend, and exclaimed, “I’m surprised at you!” to which the pedantic best friend replied, “No, WE are surprised – you are amazed.” (I think they must have been Englishmen, simply because of the sang-froid!)

  2. Julia M Traver says:

    Well, it certainly does diminish the American Psychiatric Associations’s diagnosis of Anxiety Disorder. Definition number one is definitely closer to what the DSM considers to be a state of anxiety. I am somewhat surprised that it took a century to water down the definition.

    • Interestingly, it looks like anxiety was not used as in the psychiatric sense until the early twentieth century, about the time when people started complaining about the “eager” sense of anxious. I wonder if the idea that anxiety was a specific medical diagnosis had anything to do with the idea that anxious shouldn’t be used to mean “eager”.

      Even if it didn’t, I don’t think it makes sense to say that this use diminishes the APA’s diagnosis, since the diagnosis came after this use was well established. I also wouldn’t say that this is a watered-down definition. It’s certainly a shift in meaning, but it’s still a precise meaning that isn’t quite communicated by any other word.

  3. Mike says:

    Well, Mr. Owen, there you go again. Clearly, tons of opposition forced you to write yet another column on this subject. Better luck next time; we’re still not convinced. We opposition pedants are not convinced by YOUR pedantry. But if it makes you feel good…

  4. Mike says:

    And so, in finality I’ll say that I appreciate your keen sense of irony and your testament to humor.
    I’ll look forward to our further adventures – you with your knowledge and me with my immodesty.
    Happy New Year.

  5. Eduardo says:

    “But as I said in my last post, it’s not really ambiguous, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply being uncooperative.”

    But that’s a presumptuous statement, because you’re peremptorily speaking for everyone.

    “…John McIntyre pointed out, no English speaker would say “I was anxious upon hearing that my mother was coming to stay with us” or “I start a new job next week and I’m really anxious about that” if they meant that they were eager or excited.”

    I’m assuming that Mr. McIntyre is generalizing, for there might be a few English speakers, educated or non-educated, that might phrase a sentence in such a manner.

    The argument isn’t about whether anxious can be used to mean “eager” or that it shouldn’t be; it’s about clarity. Therefore, if one uses anxious to exclusively mean: troubled or uneasy, in a state of anxiety, there would never be any ambiguity.

    “It’s also hard to take seriously the claim that it’s ambiguous when nobody can manage to find an example that’s actually ambiguous. A few commenters offered made-up examples that seemed designed to be maximally ambiguous when presented devoid of context.”

    Not everything is presented in context, especially in writing. If one writes in an e-mail: “I’m anxious to meet my father-in-law tomorrow.” That’s unequivocally an ambiguous statement. The fact that it’s devoid of context is irrelevant.

    • I’m assuming that Mr. McIntyre is generalizing, for there might be a few English speakers, educated or non-educated, that might phrase a sentence in such a manner.

      Can you provide any evidence that there are?

      The argument isn’t about whether anxious can be used to mean “eager” or that it shouldn’t be; it’s about clarity. Therefore, if one uses anxious to exclusively mean: troubled or uneasy, in a state of anxiety, there would never be any ambiguity.

      True, there wouldn’t be any ambiguity if the word had only one meaning. But a great many words have multiple meanings, and we seem to get by just fine. If you want to claim that there’s real ambiguity here, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate it. That means real-life examples, not examples that you’ve invented that don’t follow actual usage and that are designed to be maximally ambiguous.

      Not everything is presented in context, especially in writing. If one writes in an e-mail: “I’m anxious to meet my father-in-law tomorrow.” That’s unequivocally an ambiguous statement. The fact that it’s devoid of context is irrelevant.

      Except that when anxious is followed by to, it’s always used in the “eager” sense. Again, if you want to claim otherwise, you need to find some evidence to support your claim. Otherwise, this is all post hoc rationalization.

      • Eduardo says:

        I’m assuming that Mr. McIntyre is generalizing, for there might be a few English speakers, educated or non-educated, that might phrase a sentence in such a manner.
        “Can you provide any evidence that there are?”

        No, but can you provide evidence au contraire.
        Jonathon, let’s be sensible, there are approximately 400 million native speakers of English and more than a billion who speak it as a second language, I can’t speak for all of them, and neither can you; therefore, we can’t make blanket statements for either argument.

        “Except that when anxious is followed by to, it’s always used in the “eager” sense.”

        I agree, but is it always understood in that sense?
        You’re making a dogmatic statement, for how do you know it’s always used in the “eager” sense?
        Furthermore, if anxious is used in the “eager” sense when followed by to, then why not just use eager, since it’s the sense that one is trying to invoke?

        By the way, I’m playing devil’s advocate, because I do agree with you, but I’m leaning in another direction regarding the possibility of vagueness. If there is a scintilla of doubt as to the meaning of a word or a grammatical construction then why not go for the more conventional use.

        • I’m assuming that Mr. McIntyre is generalizing, for there might be a few English speakers, educated or non-educated, that might phrase a sentence in such a manner.

          Yes, we are generalizing based on the existing evidence, including 250 years of written use. Again, can you provide any evidence that this is an incorrect generalization? Saying “there might be . . .” doesn’t cut it. There might be a few English speakers who use “black” to mean “white” and “up” to mean “down”. Try to prove me wrong!

          No, but can you provide evidence au contraire.
          Jonathon, let’s be sensible, there are approximately 400 million native speakers of English and more than a billion who speak it as a second language, I can’t speak for all of them, and neither can you; therefore, we can’t make blanket statements for either argument.

          You’re the one making—or at least defending—the claim that it’s confusing when people use anxious that way. As I said, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate the validity of that claim, and you have failed to do that.

          And by the way, finding some evidence for this claim doesn’t mean that you have to survey all native speakers of English. If that were the case, then no linguist could ever make any claim about how the language works. What we do is gather available data and make generalizations based on that data.

          As I’ve already said, the data in this case shows that people have used anxious this way for 250 years, and that for 150 of those years, it apparently never even crossed anyone’s mind to be bothered by it. When they did decide to be bothered, their botheration was based on etymology, not clarity. This makes later claims that it’s an issue of clarity seem rather suspect.

          I agree, but is it always understood in that sense?
          You’re making a dogmatic statement, for how do you know it’s always used in the “eager” sense?

          No, this is not a dogmatic statement. As I’ve said, it’s based on evidence. Go to a corpus and do a search yourself.

          Furthermore, if anxious is used in the “eager” sense when followed by to, then why not just use eager, since it’s the sense that one is trying to invoke?

          As I’ve said, it isn’t really purely synonymous with eager. People use anxious in this sense because it has a meaning that people want to use. And let’s flip it around: why ask 400 million native speakers plus another billion non-native speakers to change their linguistic habits based on some hypothetical speaker who doesn’t understand what everyone else pretty clearly understands? If such a person does exist, why not teach them this meaning or teach them to stop being peeved about it? That sounds a lot easier to me.

          If there is a scintilla of doubt as to the meaning of a word or a grammatical construction then why not go for the more conventional use.

          Because this is the conventional use. It is well established by convention and has been for quite some time.

          By the way, I’m playing devil’s advocate . . .

          How about you stop playing devil’s advocate and actually pay attention to what I’ve written? Because most of the questions you’ve asked were answered either in the original post or in later comments, but you keep ignoring what I’ve said and dodging challenges to provide some evidence for your argument. Either put up or shut up.

          • Eduardo says:

            “Yes, we are generalizing based on the existing evidence, including 250 years of written use. Again, can you provide any evidence that this is an incorrect generalization?

            Nevertheless, it’s a generalization: “ a general statement : a statement about a group of people or things that is based on only a few people or things in that group
            : the act or process of forming opinions that are based on a small amount of information”

            I never claimed that it was an incorrect generalization.

            “Saying “there might be . . .” doesn’t cut it.”

            Why not? There might be a few people who adhere to standard grammatical constructions; thus, with the infinitive they would use eager instead.

            “Can you provide any evidence that there are?”

            I don’t need to do so, I’m presenting a supposition, and in no case did I make an assertion. Conversely, McIntyre did make an assertion by claiming that no English speaker would say…but as I said above there might be a few punctilious grammarians who would never use anxious to invoke the eager sense. !”

            “You’re the one making—or at least defending—the claim that it’s confusing when people anxious is confusing when it’s used that way.”

            (That’s a confusing sentence.)

            I’ve never made or defended the claim that it’s confusing. I submitted the possibility of ambiguity. (A word that’s not synonymous with confusion.) My position has nothing to do with right or wrong, it relates to clarity and precision in language; your argument is based solely on “how language works” regardless to whether there’s a right or a wrong. Therefore, we’re talking past each other.

            “Except that when anxious is followed by to, it’s always used in the “eager” sense.”

            That’s a generalization, as you’ve admitted; therefore, it can’t “always” be used in the eager sense. Might there not be a few people out of the 400 million that use it to mean anxious? I repeat, you’re submitting a peremptory statement and your evidence is based on a generalization—on how language is used—rather than clarity and non-ambiguity. Furthermore, as I asked in my previous comment: Is it always understood in the eager sense?”

            “No, this is not a dogmatic statement. As I’ve said, it’s based on evidence. Go to a corpus and do a search yourself.”

            But your evidence substantiates only your premise that people have used anxious to mean eager for 250 years, but it doesn’t substantiate that everyone has used it this way.

            “And let’s flip it around: why ask 400 million native speakers plus another billion non-native speakers to change their linguistic habits based on some hypothetical speaker who doesn’t understand what everyone else pretty clearly understands?”

            But you’re not understanding, because my argument is not about comprehension, it’s about accuracy. If someone said, “I could have “came” to the wedding” everyone would clearly understand the declaration, regardless of the misuse in tense. Furthermore, you’re again assuming that 400 million people must change their linguistic habits, because they all use anxious for the eager sense. Keep in mind, that the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary is not unanimous with the acceptability of anxious to mean eager. In certain of those usages there’s 47 percent disapproval.

            “How about you stop playing devil’s advocate and actually pay attention to what I’ve written?”
            I’ve paid attention to what you’ve written and I’ve only articulated an opinion relating to clarity and precision.

            “Because most of the questions you’ve asked were answered either in the original post or in later comments, but you keep ignoring what I’ve said and dodging challenges to provide some evidence for your argument.”

            Exactly, “most” of my questions were answered, but not all. I haven’t ignored what you’ve said, I just don’t agree with your post in its entirety. I believe that there might be an element of vagueness when anxious is used to mean eager.

            “Either put up or shut up.”
            A perfect illustration: The decline of civility effected by the decline in language.
            That’s a fine example of politeness coming from the administrator of this forum.
            I have “put up” and it’s seemingly got stuck in your craw.

            As Mike said: “Arguments were made by several people; all rejected as inconsequential. You’ve got the pen. You win.”

          • A perfect illustration: The decline of civility effected by the decline in language.
            That’s a fine example of politeness coming from the administrator of this forum.

            First off, this has nothing to do with a so-called “decline in language”. It has everything do with me running out of patience with you, because I’m tired of wasting my time refuting your ill-informed arguments. Either you don’t know how to engage in rational discourse, or you don’t actually care to. Either way, you’re not here to argue in good faith.

            I have “put up” and it’s seemingly got stuck in your craw.

            The exact opposite, actually. You have consistently refused to put up, and I’m done playing this game with you.

  6. Mike says:

    Sorry, Jonathon but… ATTABOY EDUARDO!! Now I’m ‘anxious’ as to Jonathon’s response.

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