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I'm trying to figure out how exactly these aspectual variations modify the meaning of "Она́ не могла́ сдержа́ть слёз" in the following:

Она не могла сдержать слёз.

Она не cмогла сдержать слёз.

Она не могла сдерживать слезы.

Она не смогла сдерживать слезы.

It seems to me that the simplest of these is "Она́ не cмогла́ сдержа́ть слёз", which would simply mean "She wasn't able to hold back her tears." The other possibilities, however, seem to have subtle differences. What would distinguish them?

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The Difference between "могла" and "смогла"

"Она не могла сдержать слёз" implies that the person couldn't hold back their tears. "Oна не смогла сдержать слёз" means the same thing - in both cases, this person had actually been crying; there's nothing figurative about it.

Understanding the actual difference between the usage of imperfective "мочь" and its perfective counterpart "смочь" in these phrases is quite tricky.

When we say "она не могла сдержать слёз", it means that at that exact point in time, she failed to hold back her tears. When we say "она не смогла сдержать слёз", it also means that she failed to hold back her tears, but we're referring to that moment in the past.

The difference is very, very subtle - one can say "глядя на себя в зеркало, я не могла сдержать слёз" and "глядя на себя в зеркало, я не смогла сдержать слёз". It all comes down to the narrator's perspective - whether the action is described as something that happened simultaneously to the act of looking in the mirror or as something we're recalling. So both phrases are valid.

However, there are cases when we cannot choose "смочь" over "мочь". If the action is repetitive, then it's kind of imperfective by design, as in this sentence:

Каждый раз, как она смотрела на себя в зеркало, она не могла сдержать слёз.

Here, we cannot say "она не смогла" since that would imply a one-time, completed action.

As for the implication that the person didn't necessarily actually cry, well, that may very well be, but I say it's more a matter of actual usage like, you know, when someone says, "I was literally dying there" - that doesn't mean that they were literally dying there, but then that has nothing to do with grammar, gerunds or whatever.

I'd say that imperfectiveness adds a shade of possibility, but most likely there was confusion between "я не могла сдержать слёз" and "я могла сдержать слёзы" - the latter being indeed ambiguous without any context (they potentially either managed to not cry or failed in not crying).

The Difference between "cдержать" and "сдерживать"

"Cдержать" and "сдерживать" is yet another perfective/imperfective pair, but in this context they can be used interchangeably.

To understand the general difference, consider the following sentences:

Постарайся сдерживать свой гнев.

and

Постарайся [сейчас] сдержать свой гнев.

In the first sentence, the advice "try to control your anger" is general, like one should be able to control their emotions under any circumstances.

The second sentence is about some specific situation that happened, and the advice is given in the context of that specific situation, as if saying "try not to be mad now/anymore".

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  • Thank you very much for the extensive answer! Would you say that in all cases, 'Она не могла сдержать слез.' and 'Она не могла сдерживать слезы.' (or 'Она не cмогла сдержать слез.' and 'Она не смогла сдерживать слезы.') can be interchanged with no change in meaning at all?
    – shintuku
    Feb 17 at 11:09
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    @shintuku I'd rather stick to "она не могла сдержать слёз", "сдерживать" sounds slightly off in this context, but that's just me - there are other users that now grammar way better than me so let's wait may be they will provide some additional info.
    – shabunc
    Feb 17 at 11:12
  • Thanks for the help!
    – shintuku
    Feb 17 at 11:14
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    Another subtle difference that could be perceived between "не [с]могла сдержать слезы" и "не [с]могла сдерживать слезы" is that the latter has a tint of "anymore" meaning - "couldn't hold back the tears anymore", so there is a difference in the rate at which tears were produced, if you will :) "не могла сдержать" - she was more or less uniformly crying throughout the event, "не могла сдерживать" - she wasn't crying until the moment that is referred to and then she started to cry.
    – bazzilic
    Feb 18 at 5:18
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    I might be wrong but it seems that "она не смогла" would roughly correspond to "hadn't been able" while "не могла" would correspond to "wasn't able". So one could think of the former as the perfect form of the latter. A construct very often used in English as well.
    – undercat
    Feb 18 at 11:22
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Simply put, the difference is the aspect — what you're focusing on. In the case of "я не мог", I'm pointing at the fact that I was trying. But if I say "я не смог", I'm mostly pointing at the final result. So "она не могла" should mean that "she really tried" first and foremost, and the result doesn't matter. But "она не смогла" can be best translated as "in the end, she failed" and her trials and attempts don't matter a lot. Get the difference?

Ps this is a bad example. A better one is "я долго не мог этого сделать, но сегодня наконец смог" I couldn't do that for long time, but today I finally did it. This same case usage applies to your question above.

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So what do we have here? A double negation to create an affirmative, two verbs starting with a modal, and the end result in all cases is the same: she started to cry.

Except probably for this one:

Она не могла сдерживать слезы. 

With some contextual help it could mean:

She didn't know how to keep herself from crying. Or: She was in the habit of crying.

So why doesn't the application of different aspects to these two verbs have any effect on the meaning?

Let's take a look at how we would express the opposite:

Она смогла/сумела сдержать слёзы. 
Она едва сдержала слёзы.
Она едва сдерживала слёзы.

So to answer your question:

As far as I'm concerned, the aspectual influence is lost in your examples because of the negation and modality.

You're probably wondering then why we would have so many variants that mean the same thing and what the difference is.

It's stylistic, cosmetic. The first two variants are more common, I think, and are mostly encountered in speech. The last two are not so common and can be encountered in literature.

For a learner of Russian I would recommend just using this one:

Она не cмогла сдержать слез.

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