The Negative Canon: Anticipate

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon

I’ve covered some of the main components that make up the grammar section of the Negative Canon. It’s time to move on to vocabulary.

One of the meanings of anticipate is ‘forestall’, that is, to act to prevent or minimise the consequences of a foreseen event. Can it be used simply to mean ‘expect’? In ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’, Peter Harvey writes:

Anticipate is frequently used informally by native speakers as a synonym of expect but this is regarded as incorrect by some people.

In ‘Mind The Gaffe’, R L Trask also admits that this use is found, but he advises against it:

. . . for about two centuries the word has also been used in the sense of expect . . . This sense is now so well established that it can hardly be regarded as wrong, yet a number of conservative speakers still object to it, and some handbooks condemn it, while others are resigned to it. My advice is to avoid anticipate in this sense and to write expect instead.

The caution which both writers express is no doubt wise given the readers they are writing for. After all, of the nine definitions of verb anticipate in the OED, none defines it as meaning ‘expect’. However, Oxford Dictionaries Online, which focuses on current English and includes modern meanings and uses of words, gives as its first definition of anticipate, ‘regard as probable; expect or predict’.

But as ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ says:

The plain fact of the matter is that in some instances anticipate comes close in meaning to some meanings of expect. And in some instances it comes close to predict, foresee, look forward to, forestall, foreshadow.

MWDEU then goes on to cite eleven examples of the use of anticipate, of which some do not mean ‘forestall’, and some do not mean ‘expect’ either, but  they all fall within the range of the OED’s 9th definition ‘To look forward to, look for (an uncertain event) as certain.’

Anticipate is a versatile word. Those who rail against its use to mean ‘expect’ generally consider it in isolation. Like all words, it takes its precise meaning from its context, and it will normally be clear when its meaning is ‘expect’ and when it is ‘forestall’. It will also normally be clear when it means neither.


Filed under The Negative Canon, Vocabulary

10 responses to “The Negative Canon: Anticipate

  1. This reminds me of anticipation in legal practice. To anticipate an argument by opposing counsel and thus to argue against it is indeed forestalling rather than expectation in many cases. That is, regardless of whether one thinks it probable that an argument will be raised, it is often wise to prevent it getting off the ground by demonstrating its weakness or falsity in the first place. I have no doubt that I have many times anticipated an objection that never would have been raised by this counsel or that (even indeed if it would have been a good idea on the opposing side), and I don’t do it out of expectation. I do it for prevention.


  2. I remember seeing a letter (perhaps in a novel) that ended “Eagerly anticipating your reply, I am etc.” Clearly this is not about forestalling! But to write “Eagerly expecting” would be too demanding.


  3. It’s no good making excuses for a grievous error just because it’s often made. ‘Anticipate’ doesn’t mean ‘expect’ and using it as if it does threatens us with the loss of a useful word (anticipate meaning forestall). It’s also an unattractive example of misusing a word to add pomposity or formality to the simple concept of expecting, but betraying the weiter’s ignorance in the process. Burchfield’s MEU recalls that the original Fowler and people of his generation like himself “scornfully rejected” the ‘expect’ usage but acknowledges that it has been increasingly common, quoting some examples. It seems to me that the best advice is to avoid equating anticipate with expect like the Black Death!


    • Thank you, Brian, for that unambiguous comment, (and apologies for not approving it sooner: I’ve been away for a couple of days).

      We are, of course, all free to express ourselves in whatever way we see fit. FWIW, the occasions on which I myself might use ‘anticipate’ in any sense at all would be rare. If I expected something, then I say that I expected it. If I took action to head off, or prepare for, something that might occur, then I would use those or similar words. But I recognize, as does Oxford Dictionaries Online, that the practice of others differs.


      • Barrie, I certainly don’t question the ‘freedom’ of every single writer of English in every country at any time to write lousy English. But I also claim the freedom to recognise and to denounce lousy English when I see it, however frequently. Some freedoms shade into anarchy — in its literal sense.

        All the same, I’m with you in being unlikely to use the a-word at all often!


        • I try to avoid terms like ‘lousy English’ and ‘incorrect English’, because they don’t seem to provide enough information. I think it’s preferable instead to consider whether any piece of speech or writing is effective or ineffective to the extent that it serves a particular communicative purpose at a particular time and in a particular place. I expect you’ll say, Brian, that doing so makes me a treacherous clerk, but that is perhaps a discussion for another occasion.

          I will just say, though, that, although none of the OED’s nine definitions of ‘anticipate’ includes ‘expect’, the eight definition of ‘anticipation’ is ‘The action of looking forward to, expectation.’ In any case, it doesn’t look as if ‘anticipate’ is usurping the place of ‘expect’. I realise it’s a crude measure, but there are 14 times as many records in the British National Corpus for ‘expect’ as there are for anticipate’.


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