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What is the difference between 스스로 and 자기?

I recently wrote the following sentence:

그냥 자기의 도전이라고 생각하고 있다.
I am thinking of it as just a challenge for myself.

A helpful soul helped me correct it to:

그냥 스스로에 대한 도전이라고 생각하고 있다.

Why is 스스로 more appropriate than 자기 or 자기 자신 here? When is each term used?

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I think the more important point is not 스스로 vs. 자기, but "-에 대한" vs. "-의".

"자기 도전" would mean "challange of/by (someone/oneself)". It can appear in a sentence like this:

그는 [자기의 도전]을 아무도 받아들이지 않는 것에 몹시 실망하여 조국을 떠났다.

Disappointed that nobody took [his challenge], he left his own country.

Also, in such a case, I think 자기 can only refer to second/third person. If the subject was 나, the sentence would become:

나는 [나의 도전]을 아무도 받아들이지 않는 것에 몹시 실망하여 조국을 떠났다.

So your usage of "자기의 도전" would be doubly inappropriate.

  • As an aside, note that Korean and English has different rules for anaphora: even though 자기 is commonly translated as himself/herself/etc., it appears in sentences where English would use plain he/she/etc., as in the first sentence above or in:

    철수는 자기가 타고 온 차를 기억하지 못했다. Chulsoo couldn't remember the car he rode.

Actually, as long as you use "-에 대한", I think both 스스로 and 자기 are acceptable in your sentence, although 스스로 sounds slightly better. These both sound OK to me:

그냥 스스로에 대한 도전이라고 생각하고 있다. (Better?)

그냥 자기에 대한 도전이라고 생각하고 있다. (Still OK)

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스스로

1) 부사 (adverb):

그는 스스로 (=alone or depending on only his power) 그것을 한다.
He does it himself.

여름에, 얼음은 저절로 (=automatically, without external force) 물로 변한다.
In summer, ice changes into water by itself.

2) 명사 (noun):

(1) 그는 그것이 스스로에 대한(=자기에 대한, 자기 자신에 대한) 도전이라 믿는다.
He believes that it is a challenge to him.

(2) 우리 문제는 우리 스스로가 푼다.
As for our problem, we must solve it by ourselves.

(By using 스스로, there is an added emphasis. Here we cannot replace it with 자기.)

자기

1) 명사 (noun), indicating himself:

But 자기 has more usages. For instance, it has the form 자기 + noun:

그는 자기 위주로 결정한다.
He determines something which is a benefit for him.

자기 개발해라.
Develop yourself.

Distinguishing noun-usages of 자기 and 스스로: If the content is about him, then we prefer 스스로. If the content is about him in relation to others, then we prefer 자기.

자기를 (=자신을, 스스로를, 자기 스스로를, 자기 자신을, 자신 스스로를) 천재라고 믿는다.
I believe that I am a genius

내 스스로가 그 말을 믿을 수 없다.
I can not believe the word without other's help.
(Here 스스로 can not be replaced with 자기)

자기가 좋으면 남도 좋은가?
If I am fine myself, then is another person fine, too?

2) 대명사 (pronoun), indicating a very intimate person

자기야, 학교 가자.
You (or babe), let's go to school.

[Add] Noun-usages between 스스로 and 자기 are folded. 스스로=자신 is unique in the world. And 자기 is close to his character so that it is not unique.

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The word, 자기, is very rarely used in colloquial language in South Korea. I think I hardly ever saw the word 자기 used in prints either. 자기 is always either used like 자기자신 to refer to oneself (equivalent of the word "myself" in English) or to mean 자기 ("babe" in English).

Your sentence, 그냥 자기의 도전이라고 생각하고 있다, sounds a little awkward to me (I am a native speaker). I would say 그냥 자신에 대한 도전이라고 생각하고 있다 instead because the word 자신 is used more frequently in conversations. It's a little difference, and in fact they do mean the same 자기 and 자신, but 자신 sounds to me a little more appropriate in your context. Or you could simply say 그냥 자기와의 도전이라고 생각하고 있다 if you don't want to switch between them. They both sound OK.

The word 스스로 is just an upscale way of saying 자신. For example, saying 자신의 미래는 스스로 결정하는 거야 sounds more classy than 자신의 미래는 자신이 결정하는 거야 (at least in my opinion). However, you can't always use 스스로 over 자신 because in some contexts they mean entirely different things. For example, the word 자신 in 스스로에게 자신이 없으면 어떤 일도 도전할 수도 없다 means "confidence" and not "myself". Notice 자신 was used as an abbreviation for 자신감.

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Did you make a typo when you wrote: "그냥 자신에 대한에 대한 도전이라고 생각하고 있다."

Is it not supposed to be just: "그냥 자신 대한 도전이라고 생각하고 있다." Why is there 대한에 대한?

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  • Welcome to Korean Language Stack Exchange. This looks more like a comment on the question. When you have enough reputations you will be able to comment on other people's post. If this was meant to be an answer, please consider adding more details and references. – user17915 Sep 17 '18 at 8:45
  • This post will be converted into a comment in the future – user17915 Sep 17 '18 at 8:45
  • Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure where you're looking though? That doesn't seem to match the original post. – kazzyt Sep 17 '18 at 15:41

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