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According to Dictionary.com

Difficult

difficult [dif-i-kuhlt, -kuh lt]

adjective

  1. not easily or readily done; requiring much labor, skill, or planning to be performed successfully; hard

a difficult job.

  1. hard to understand or solve

a difficult problem.

3.hard to deal with or get on with

a difficult pupil.

Hard

hard[hahrd]

adjective, harder, hardest.

1.not soft; solid and firm to the touch; unyielding to pressure and impenetrable or almost impenetrable.

2.firmly formed; tight

a hard knot.

3.difficult to do or accomplish; fatiguing; troublesome

a hard task.

etc. (many more)

In what situations is there a preference over the other? What are the rules for that?

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  • Difficult comes from Latin, and hard comes from German. Difficult has a narrower meaning. Other than that, it depends on context and what you are trying to communicate. – Nathaniel is protesting Nov 18 '15 at 23:29
  • In what context? Also, do you want to know the difference in meaning, the difference in how they sound, the difference in who uses them, or what? I think you're going to have to be more specific... – herisson Nov 18 '15 at 23:30
  • I edited according to your questions. Does this make more sense now? – anonymous Nov 18 '15 at 23:35
  • 'Hard' can usually be used in place of 'difficult' in sentences 2 & 7. But we'd probably say 'this job is hard' rather than 'this is a hard job'; 'the operation was performed under the hardest of conditions' ... // This question is far too broadly scoped, but does serve to illustrate well the vast chasm between 'synonymous' and 'always interchangeable'. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 18 '15 at 23:37
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    I've already close-voted for being far too broad (if the dictionary takes so many lines in its only-reasonable attempt, what would an exhaustive answer look like?). I didn't say those were your sentences. I said analyse the sentences the dictionary gives yourself. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 19 '15 at 0:35
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Good answers have already been given and accepted, but I'll just add that the word "difficult" might be seen as slightly more formal and/or sophisticated than "hard" in some contexts. I would lean toward "difficult" in formal writing. "Hard" can come across as a bit rough and workmanlike, so to speak.

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  • Perfectly said! Can you provide me with some examples of the different circumstances of preferred hard and difficult? – anonymous Nov 19 '15 at 4:42
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    Hm, I'll try! As an example, in a formal article I'd expect to see something like—"All involved acknowledge that the unrest in the Middle East will be difficult to resolve." "Hard" would work there, but it's a little less sophisticated—at least to my ear. It's a subtle distinction, though—and one that may not matter much generally. – ralph.m Nov 19 '15 at 4:51
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In the context you offered (i.e. difficulty), I think all four of your sentences are essentially correct, but the third sentence - Your neighbor is difficult to understand - sounds a little odd. I think most people would say

Your neighbor is hard to understand.

But, as you noted, there are other definitions. For example, it would be absurd to call a hard rock a "difficult rock," though the popular saying "caught between a rock and a hard place" could be loosely translated "caught between a rock and a difficult place."

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    "Difficult to understand" would apply if the neighbor, eg, has a very thick accent, such that you must really concentrate to understand the words. And it could also apply if the neighbor is behaving irrationally. – Hot Licks Nov 19 '15 at 2:12
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They are interchangeable a lot of the time as their meanings overlap. As someone else said they have different origins and the totality of their meanings are different.

Some examples of non-interchangeable sentences:

The rock is a hard, solid object.

Susan was being very difficult while talking with her counselor about what happened on Saturday.

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    Of course, the rock could be difficult, if it is in a bad place and you're trying to move it. And Susan can be hard (cold and unemotional) while talking to her counselor. – Hot Licks Nov 19 '15 at 2:10
  • @HotLicks Sure you could describe a rock as difficult in a different sentence and with different context. But not in this one. As for the susan one, the word difficult and hard could both be used, but they bring slightly (but significant enough) different meanings. – Jaico Nov 19 '15 at 2:55

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