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Both seems to mean 'to be difficult' or 'to be hard'. Is there a difference between them, in meaning or in usage (spoken/written, formal/informal)?

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  • 힘들다 comes from 힘(power) + 들다(use), so its actual meaning should be having to use many power. Something are different not because of having to use a lot of power, but lets say not permitted, then using 어렵다 will be better. Aug 4 '16 at 5:39
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In many cases, they are interchangeable. But 힘들다 is more focusing on the amount of effort you have to pay, especially physical effort. 등산은 힘들다(Hiking a mountain is hard) can be a proper example.

Comparing to it, 어렵다 is more focusing on intellectual efforts, or lack of your ability. Usually 힘들다 proposes you can achieve what you want to if you do your best. In contrast, 어렵다 is used when you can't do or get something even if you do your best, because of lack of your ability. 이 시험은 나에게 너무 어렵다(The exam is too difficult for me) is very natural, but 이 시험은 나에게 너무 '힘들다' is a little bit awkward, though everyone can understand what you mean.

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  • Would it be clearer to state that 힘들다 means demanding, from that means force, power, as opposed to 어렵다, difficult? Aug 4 '16 at 10:52
  • Exactly. For that reason, 힘들다 can also mean 'tired' or diligent. You can understand 힘들다 as hard. 어렵다 is, yes it can be translated into difficult. 힘들게 일하다-work hard is used broadly but 어렵게 일하다-work with difficulty is not very natural and used much.
    – jungyh0218
    Aug 5 '16 at 5:28
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I would just like to add something to the excellent answer posted above

From Naver's online dictionary for 어렵다:

어렵다 [어렵따] 발음 듣기 중요 [형용사]
1. 하기가 까다로워 힘에 겹다.
2. 겪게 되는 곤란이나 시련이 많다.
3. 말이나 글이 이해하기에 까다롭다.
[유의어] 딱하다, 힘들다, 가난하다

So 힘들다 and 어렵다 seem to be synonyms

However 힘들다 is formed from 힘이 들다 which implies physical demand for performing a task

어렵다 is more related to the inherent difficulty of a problem

Here is a collection of sample sentences which might help in grasping the differences between the two:

Uses of 어렵다

Uses of 힘들다

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