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I was wondering what the differences are between these three: ~がたい、〜にくい、〜づらい

They all seem to be some sort of variant of "Hard to do ~". But it seems they are used with different verbs and/or imply slightly different things. However, I'm not sure on what these are.

Questions:

1) When should you use one of these over the others. For example, when should you use ~がたい over ~にくい and ~づらい

2) What is the difference (and are all 3 acceptable?) between:

  1. わかりがたい
  2. わかりにくい
  3. わかりづらい
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2 Answers 2

Great question! Here's how I understand them:

~にくい 【~難い】

The most general of the three. Basic "hard/difficult to do ~" meaning.

~づらい 【~辛い】

You can see that it comes from 辛【つら】い which can mean "difficult" or "painful". So ~づらい is usually a more subjective meaning, whereas ~にくい is usually more objective. Also, ~づらい is limited to actions that are intentional.

~がたい 【~難い】

Very difficult to do. "Virtually impossible". The most expressive of the difficulty.

So I would say that (~にくい <=> ~づらい) <<< ~がたい. Also notice that ~にくい and ~がたい have the same kanji. In practice, I don't think they're ever written in kanji, but if you were to see it, I don't know if even the sentence context would help you know which one it was.

2) What is the difference (and are all 3 acceptable?) between:

  1. わかりがたい
  2. わかりにくい
  3. わかりづらい

Yes, they would all be acceptable, but would be used in different scenarios/contexts according to the definitions (exercise left to the reader).

UPDATE -- According to the PDF posted by @Derek Schaab below, 分かりがたい is not acceptable because 分かる is not an 意志動詞. However, 理解しがたい is acceptable in its place.

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2  
Further reading: A PDF (in Japanese) that goes over the differences and provides several example sentences. –  Derek Schaab Sep 26 '11 at 17:30

@istrasci's answer is very good but as an addendum, I would say that

づらい and にくい are not interchangeable because their nuance is very different. にくい is more of a physical difficulty that everyone would experience where づらい is more about an external social force or social norm that would prevent you in particular to doing it. (Istrasci did slightly cover this point when mentioning subjectivity)

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