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I have these examples:

Die Touristen haben sich bei uns nach dem Weg erkundigt.
Tourists asked us for directions.

Nach dem Weg/Alter/Name fragen.
To ask the way/age/name.

So, what I’m interested in knowing, is whether these verbs are interchangeable, when they mean to ask for something?

  • Just for completeness, did you check a dictionary? It may not have helped you in this special case, but for questions about differences, that is usually a requirement. – Jan Jun 16 '16 at 13:20
  • Dictionaries I was using mostly give you translations in general, without going in details and a bunch of examples to give you additional insight, whether you're able to figure out the actual difference comparing aforementioned examples is another matter. I asked the question because I didn't succeed grasping the difference – Gofun Dake Jun 16 '16 at 15:45
  • Yes, that is what I was assuming. However, there have been a few meta discussions on the topic. Our general consensus is that we would like you to have at least looked into a dictionary once and then write in your question why it didn’t help you. Ideally source-quoting the dictionary in question. Again, in this case I know that it won’t help much, because there is no way for dictionaries to explain the difference well; the two words are too related. It still remains our line of defence against bad differences questions. – Jan Jun 16 '16 at 15:49
  • Affirmative and roger that – Gofun Dake Jun 16 '16 at 15:53
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In your examples, the meaning is close to synonymous. "sich erkundigen" is normally done with someone who you assume to be knowing - i.e. with some kind of authority - while fragen leaves this open.

Generally, the meaning of fragen is spread a bit wider than sich erkundigen:

fragen can also mean to ask for permission ("Hast du gefragt, ob du heute ins Schwimmbad darfst?" - this doesn't work with "sich erkundigen".

fragen also works reflexively and translates to "to wonder": "Ich frage mich, ob ich das jemals erleben werde" - Doesn't work with "sich erkundigen" either.

fragen can use a direct object - sich erkundigen cannot (or rather, the direct object place is already taken by "sich"). "Jemanden nach etwas fragen"

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  • That is all nice and stuff, but I was only interested in comparing 'fragen nach' with 'sich erkundigen nach', as prepositional verbs and as I understood it, the tone of conversation is the only thing they affect, with 'sich erkundigen nach' being used for talking with officials and 'fragen nach' for situations, where formalities are irrelevant. Thank you for the in detail answer though. – Gofun Dake Jun 16 '16 at 16:26
  • I disagree with your assessment that erkundigen is usually used towards people you assume knowledgeable. – Jan Jun 16 '16 at 19:02
  • "Ich habe mich erkundigt" is synonym IMHO to "Ich habe mich kundig gemacht" and implies you got a proper (authoritative) answer - "Ich habe gefragt" - doesn't. – tofro Jun 16 '16 at 22:11
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The two verbs sich erkundigen und fragen essentially mean the same but belong to different registers. Sich erkundigen is a more formal way of expressing the asking.

If somebody erkundigt sich, then I automatically assume they did so politely. On the other hand, fragen does not automatically imply impoliteness or rudeness; it is entirely possible höflich zu fragen.

In any industry that is associated with service, e.g tourist information desks, I would expect to hear the employees use erkundigen if they are talking about what customers did, just for additional politeness.

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To "erkundigen nach" is to "ask about" in a general way that leaves some discretion to the answerer.

To "fragen nach" is to ask a question in a specific or direct way (which some people consider less polite), that leaves little discretion to the answerer.

To use your example: Erkundigen nach dem Weg. (To ask for directions, generally. The answerer is being trusted to suggest a reasonable route.)

Fragen nach dem Weg: To ask for the way. (The implication is that there is only one correct way and the answerer either knows it or he doesn't.)

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