Anticipate, Expect

Although the use of anticipate and expect as synonyms is now largely accepted,1 at least in casual communications, the careful writer will do well to note that some authorities still hold that there is a subtle difference between them.1-3

Although both words refer to a person’s attitude toward a future event, they differ in what they convey about that attitude. For example, some observers hold that the difference between the words relates to the level of certainty toward the future event (ie, anticipate implies that a person is certain that the event will take place, whereas expect implies only that a person predicts that the event will take place3). However, this weak distinction is easily blurred, and in practice it seems that it is not often upheld. A stronger and more often upheld distinction maintains that anticipate is the stronger of the two words, connoting that some action has been taken to prepare for the foreseen event.2,3 This sense possibly arose from an early (late 1500s) use, “To seize or take possession of beforehand.”4 Although that use is now obsolete, by the early 1600s anticipate was being used to suggest simply “to take action beforehand,” a meaning still current.4 Bernstein points out that such action “Need not be taken so literally as to mean the performance of an overt act; it may simply connote an advance accommodation of the mind or the senses, even involuntarily, to the coming event.”2

In any case, if anticipate suggests the taking of some sort of action to prepare for an expected event, it seems clear that one should perhaps not use it when wishing to convey only simple expectation. Interestingly enough, even those who consider anticipate and expect synonyms do not extend the same acceptance to the synonymous use of unanticipated and unexpected.1

The misuse of anticipate in place of expect likely arose from the tendency common among writers and speakers to use larger words.5(pp22-23) It also is an example of what Garner terms “slipshod extension”5(pp22-23)—“the mistaken stretching of a word beyond its accepted meanings, the mistake lying in a misunderstanding of the true sense.”5(pp307-308) Garner further maintains that the use of anticipate in the sense of “to await eagerly” is also incorrect and points out that such use is also likely the result of slipshod extension.5(pp22-23)

The bottom line:

● Referring to a person’s attitude toward a future event? Using anticipate and expect interchangeably is likely acceptable in casual communications, but in more formal contexts one should take care to observe the subtle differences between them.

● Referring to the simple expectation of a foreseen event? Use expect.

● Referring to a state of taking action—whether that action be either concrete, mental, or emotional—in preparation for a foreseen event? Use anticipate.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Anticipate. The Free Dictionary website. Accessed June 8, 2012.

2. Anticipate, expect. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:44-45.

3. Anticipate or Expect: What’s Next? Grammatically Correct website. Accessed June 8, 2012.

4. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991: 58.

5. Anticipate. In: Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000.

One thought on “Anticipate, Expect

  1. I’m glad the difference, subtle as it may be, has been explained as I thought the opposite (ie, expect was the stronger of the two words).

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