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Is there any rule of thumb that I can use to either pick Steigerung oder Zunahme or does it mostly depend on the context?

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Guidot's answer was so to the point that I thought I wouldn't make my own. But then I found that another objective difference is that the grammatical subject is different, quite in line with the active vs. passive difference, but even more than that. The thing that grows "nimmt zu" so the subject is the thing that grows, and you might leave the specific increasing property implicit. Conversely in "steigern" the subject is someone else who will increase a property and the object of steigern must be a property, a quality, not just the thing. You can say "Mensch, alter Freund! Du hast ja ganz schön zugenommen in den letzten Monaten!" You could never use "steigern" here. "Du hast dich gesteigert" would sound totally weird and meaningless because you don't steiger yourself. But everyone knows the moon that can zunehmen. Die Fülle des zunehmenden Mondes nimmt zu. Die Fülle des zunehmenden Mondes steigert sich. You see, zunehmen is intransitive and steigern is transitive but usually reflexive. You cannot anybody else "zunehmen", not even a property of someone else. Zunehmen is what a property does or something does of its weight or fullness, and its out of itself.

We actually use "steigern" much less commonly. And it connotes someone else doing it actively on something else. If something accelerates, we would almost always say "die Geschwindigkeit nimmt zu" almost never "steigert sich".

The only two real uses of "steigern" that I know is in the context of "steigerung" as in grammar of adjectives: e.g., big, bigger, biggest. Or with "ver-" as in "versteigern" (auction) where the price is being actively pushed up.

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    "sich steigern" is perfectly valid, and sentences like "Du hast dich gesteigert" are rather common in my experience (with a certain property implied from context, of course)
    – Lykanion
    Sep 21 '20 at 7:11
  • @Lykanion, hm, maybe it's more common for others, not for me. I remember "du steigerst dich da in was herein" - "hereinsteigern" having heard more commonly than "du hast dich gesteigert" but I don't dispute that it's perfectly valid. Sep 21 '20 at 16:35
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I consider the most striking, that Steigerung implies an active participation. Zunahme can be completely unattended, unintended.

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    E.g. you can say "Er steigert seine Kraft." or "Seine Kraft nimmt zu.". The first one is "active". You can't say "Er nimmt seine Kraft zu." or "Seine Kraft steigert.". Yes, I know the second one becomes valid by adding a "sich".
    – akuzminykh
    Sep 19 '20 at 18:14
  • bravo 10 more to go... Sep 22 '20 at 12:28

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