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kè kǔ
adj. hardworking, assiduous; simple and frugal
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In this post, let's take a look at 努力, 刻苦, 勤奋 and 用功. These four words have similar meanings and in many cases, you will see them used together to form 4-word phrases, such as 勤奋用功, 刻苦努力. What are their differences?

1. 刻苦 is only an adjective. It has two meanings
刻苦1: hardworking, assiduous -- this meaning is mainly about studying at school
刻苦2: simple and frugal -- this meaning describes the way a person leads his/her life

2. 努力 is mainly a verb meaning "to make an effort/exert oneself to do something". 努力 can be an adjective as well, but when it's an adjective it describes someone's attitude when he or she is in action.

3. 用功 can be a verb or an adjective, and like 刻苦, it's mainly about studying at school. Please note that when it is a verb, 用功 is a separable verb. We can insert other elements between 用 and 功, for instance, measure word, particle, attributive modifier, numeral-measure word phrase.
E.g. 用点儿功; 用了功; 用苦功; 用一番苦工

4. 勤奋 only an adjective meaning "diligent". It can be about studying at school or working, in a sense its meaning is broader than 刻苦1 and 用功(adj)
lisaC
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