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I have recently seen both удержать(ся) and сдержать(ся) used in the sense of holding back feelings, tears, laughter, etc. Is there any discernible difference between the two in this usage?

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While both of these words can be translated into English as keep, there are other translations and somewhat different meanings.

Удержать usually means to keep/to retain [something]. For example:

Удержать удочку
Keep/retain the fishing rod (e.g. when a large fish is hooked)

(However you cannot say сдержать удочку)

Сдержать also means to keep, however it is either used in the sense of refrain, i.e.

Сдержать себя и не съесть всю коробку конфет
Keep yourself from eating the whole box of chocolates

(You can also say удержать себя и не съесть все коробку конфет)

Or, very often, it's used with word word as in

Сдержать свое слово
Keep your word

(You cannot say удержать свое слово)

Hence, as you can see, these two words are similar in meanings and can in some instances be use interchangeably. Yet, there are are cases when you can use one but not the other.

There are also words сдержаться and удержаться, which have somewhat different meanings from сдержать and удержать. Those two words are mostly interchangeable (as @Shady_arc describes in his answer)

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  • Thank you! In the fishing rod example, does this mean to pull it back once you've hooked a fish? – CocoPop Aug 10 '14 at 17:23
  • @CocoPop No, it doesn't mean "pull it back" - it means "keep it in your hand, don't let the fish pull it out of your hand", as the fish could pull quite hard. – Aleks G Aug 10 '14 at 18:25
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"удержаться" means more to "refrain", to keep yourself from doing something. You may metaphorically imagine feelings being on a leash that you should keep in your hands.

"сдержаться" (and "сдержать") is more focused on containing feeling, suppressing it. Keeping it from poping out or keeping its magnitude to a resonable level. Keeping under control (hence "сдержанный смех"="restrained laugh").

If you want to say "I could not help but..." then "Я не удержался от" / "Я не удержался от того, чтобы .." are the most obvious choice.

That's why they are interchangeable. Somewhat. These meanings are sometimes pretty close. If you provided the examples I could answer in more detail what should be used when.

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  • So then удержаться is close to воздержаться in meaning, whereas сдержаться is more about checking or controlling the urge to do something? – CocoPop Aug 10 '14 at 17:22
  • Maybe in meaning but not in use. "Воздержаться" is used in formal contexts ("abstain") and can mean consciously refuse to vote/answer/make a comment etc. – Shady_arc Aug 10 '14 at 18:15
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If you confine the meaning to hold back [tears], the difference is very subtle.

The у- prefix adds a hint of keeping something in the original state, and the с- prefix suggests the action succeeded.

Apart from overall meaning difference, the meaning of prefix itself becomes quite prominent in сдерживать напор (to successfully withstand pressure) vs. удерживать напор (to keep the pressure at the same level).

Refer to с- and у- for more details.

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I would say, that удержать(ся) is used mostly in direct sense, eg talking about objects and physical action of holding things. сдержать(ся) is used in figurative sense, to stop smth that is often developing very fast and without control, weaken smth

сдержать слезы - hold back tears

сдержать натиск - stop attack

сдержать эмоции - hold emotions

сдержать шаг - go slowly

сдержать обещание - keep a word

придержать язык - keep mouth close, keep silence, secret (lit. keep tongue)

So, the rule of thumb - whatever you can keep physically use удержать, what is not possible to hold in hands сдержать.

If we talk about military attack - can be used both, as you can stop it physically or by negotiations.

Same about tears or laugh, when you try to stop laughing, you keep your hands near lips for example, so it's sometimes also physical action. But definitely it's difficult to hear удержать слово (keep a word)

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Удерживают материальные объекты, животных, людей. Удержать means either to physically retain something or somebody or to convince somebody not to do something (удержать кого-либо от чего-либо).

Сдерживают нематериальное: эмоции, проявления эмоций (смех, слёзы и т.п.), натиск/атаку противника, слово/обещание/клятву (сдержать слово - to keep a word).

Удержаться/сдержаться means to refrain from doing something which one wants to. Сдержаться is used when one wanted to do it because of anger or hate, удержаться is used for all other cases.

Не удержаться/не сдержаться means that one wants to do something, tries to refrain from it, but fails (the temptation is too strong). Again, не сдержаться is used only if he/she acted from anger/hate.

Шарик не удержался и съел конфету Бобика. Увидев это, Бобик не сдержался и укусил Шарика. Собаки подрались.

(Sharik knew that he should not eat it, but it was too tasty. Bobik knew that he should not bite Sharik, but he was too angry.)

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