Anticipate and expect

Posted on 13 July 2015 by Lucy Gregory

Anticipating the unexpected

It was a Monday just like any other, and I was perusing The Economist style guide. Naturally, I started at the letter A.

And I came across this entry:

‘Anticipate does not mean expect. Jack and Jill expected to marry; if they anticipated marriage, only Jill might find herself expectant.’

I understood the first sentence without a problem. But, try as I might, I couldn’t decipher the rest of this cryptic entry. Further research was needed.

My first stop was the Oxford dictionaries, which didn’t help for the simple reason they include expect in the definition of anticipate:

‘Regard as probable; expect or predict: she anticipated scorn on her return to the theatre; it was anticipated that the rains would slow the military campaign
I was more puzzled than ever and determined to solve the mystery. I’ll save you the rest of my research. This is what I discovered:

1. It’s fine to use ‘anticipate’ and ‘expect’ synonymously

Yup, that’s right. Feel free to use the two words interchangeably.

The distinction is so fine and ignored by so many people that for all intents and purposes the two words mean the same. This is why dictionary entries start with a definition that uses one word to describe the other.

It’s only a matter of time before the original distinction is lost entirely. So unless you’re particularly interested in language, don’t worry about it further.

Those with a keen desire for knowledge, read on.

2. There are some people who care about the distinction – a lot

Although most people don’t care that anticipate and expect once had subtly different meanings, there are language pedants at The Economist (and the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere), who continue to insist on the distinction.*

Here is an extract from the Telegraph Style Guide, which I think explains it clearer than any other reference:

‘anticipate is not a synonym for expect; it conveys the meaning of acting in expectation of an event. A reporter who expects to be sent to Zaire may anticipate the assignment by buying tropical clothes. A couple who anticipate marriage may, for instance, open a joint bank account.’

So there you go. Anticipation is something you do to prepare for something you expect. And with your newfound knowledge, I leave you to interpret The Economist’s entry above as you may…
If you’d like to read more on the topic, I recommend this Daily Telegraph article: Expecting the misuse of the word ‘anticipate’: the real rules of the English language.
*You might have noticed The Economist has a capital T for The , but the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph have lowercase Ts. This is deliberate and matches each newspaper’s house style on writing their own names.