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Both are transitive verbs that translate as "to force" in English.

3 Answers 3

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Zwingen and zwängen come from the same Germanic root that meant "to compress a body by force". This physical origin is still visible especially in zwängen.

Zwängen means to force a body through a somewhat narrow gap or hole. It either takes a reflexive object or an object that is not a living being.

Ich zwänge mich in die U-Bahn.

Ich zwänge das Buch in die viel zu kleine Tasche.

But you cannot really zwängen another person as that would imply that you physically "compress" that person.

Zwingen on the other hand is mainly abstract. "Compressing" is not the point anymore, just "strong, irresistible pushing" if you will. It means to force in all kinds of ways and it usually takes a person as a direct object.

Ich zwinge mich, den Computer auszumachen.

Ich zwinge dich zu nichts.

Mind you, that zwingen is a little more narrow than force in that it kind of implies some sort of consequence. You cannot really zwingen open a door because you have nothing to pressure the door with. You cannot threaten the door with consequences, hence you can't zwingen it. Technically, zwingen can take a thing as an object but at least to me that results some kind of personalization of the object.

Ich zwinge den Router sich zu synchronisieren.

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    Gerade von der U-Bahn kennt man doch Bilder aus Tokyo, wie Menschen von anderen Menschen in die U-Bahn gezwängt werden. Zu "zwingen" und Objekten siehe auch tofros Entdeckung der Schraubzwinge, mit der man eine Tür schlecht aufzwingen kann, aber zusammenzwingen, sollte sie gerissen sein. Mar 27 at 4:53
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  • "zwängen" means to push something with force in a (probably) too small room/object

whereas

  • "zwingen" means to wield authority and force someone to do something he/she doesn't want to do on his/her own
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"Zwingen" and "zwängen" are one example of verb pairs that are connected by a very ancient mode stemming from old Germanic roots. That variation is no longer productive (i.e. you cannot form new verbs using it) and basically frozen. The Kausativ of a verb basically expresses "to make someone/something do verb" - Typical examples are

  • fahren - führen ("etwas fahren machen")
  • fallen - fällen ("etwas fallen machen")
  • liegen - legen ("etwas liegen machen")

English as a Germanic language has remnants of similar pairs like

  • to sit - to set ("make something sit")
  • to fall - to fell ("make something fall", like in German)

So zwängen has the original meaning of "etwas zwingen machen" - What could that mean, then?

Zwingen has the original meaning of "to press", so zwängen basically means applying rather indirect force to "make something press", while zwingen is more direct force. Admittedly, the original difference has been washed up a bit over the history. zwingen is mostly used when non-physical force is applied (except maybe in very ancient technical terms like "using a Zwinge" (clamp something) or "Zange" (tong), while zwängen almost always means physical force.

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  • This is correct but not only restricted to pairs of verbs, for instance: adjektive/adverb "schmal" - "schmälern", Nomen "Ton" - "tönen", etc.. There is also a "Faktitiv", which works similar: "ich schweigte ihn" = "ich tat etwas, das sein Schweigen bewirkte."
    – bakunin
    Mar 27 at 16:42
  • @bakunin which is correct, but doesn't have anything to do with the question :) I saw myself already on the fence when I explained the Kausativ.
    – tofro
    Mar 27 at 16:52

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