Which Word Wednesday Constrain vs Restrain

By September 17, 2014 language No Comments

Today’s Which Word Wednesday showdown is between two words, constrain and restrain, that in essence speak of control. As usual, each one comes at the idea from a slightly different nuance. And it’s always the nuance that’s tricky! Let’s kick it off in with the definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

constrain :: verb
severely restrict the scope, extent, or activity of; compel or force (someone) toward a particular course of action

restrain :: verb
prevent (someone or something) from doing something; keep under control or within limits; deprive (someone) of freedom of movement or personal liberty

The first thing I see here is that constrain refers to a limiting of control through restrictions while restrain limits control through prevention or deprivation. In The Artful Nuance, Rod Evans gives these sentences as examples of usage:

She was constrained to agree with the demonstrable truth. He found it difficult to restrain his curiosity.1

Good sentences . . . but not necessarily helpful to me in keeping these two words in proper context. I need something else. A quick search through my favorite language blogs gave this common example:

Constrain is like keeping your dog within a fenced yard while restrain is like keeping your dog on a leash.

That helps tremendously! Maybe because, as a runner, I get the idea of dogs being kept in check. It gives me context.

What’s my WWW verdict? Honestly, I don’t mind if dogs are constrained or restrained—as long as they can’t chase me!

What’s your verdict? Do you waffle over constrain and restrain? Do you keep your dog in check for the SAKE THE CHILDREN (or the runners)? Do share in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Rod Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 55.


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