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I have a question about synonyms:
I'm wondering for quite a while if synonyms always stand exactly for the same thing. Is there sometimes a little difference in meaning?
Let's use clumsy and clunky for example. Can I always replace clunky with clumsy? Since I'm not a native speaker, as you may have noticed, I cannot tell them apart. According to my dictionary, they mean exactly the same. Is it always true?

If the question has already been ask, sorry I couldn't find it.

Edit: Thank you very much! Every answer has helped a lot and thank you so much for it. I really appreciate it. I've voted all your answer because every answer helped me in a different way. I've accepted Barrie England's answer because it was the best one in my case. But all of yours were really good and helpful :)

  • Which dictionary says clunky is a synonym of clumsy? – Sweet72 Sep 23 '13 at 15:11
  • dict.cc says it. – Matt3o12 Sep 23 '13 at 15:16
  • if the meaning of two words was truly identical, why would you need both words? – Michael Sep 23 '13 at 18:14
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    @Michael Your comment is only relevant if English doesn't have any deadwood in it? – Dan Neely Sep 23 '13 at 20:07
  • and I think in some cases there might be collocation issues as well, which will be very hard to grasp for non native speakers. For example (in British English at least, I think), We will eat outside, weather allowing. is not correct though it sounds ok, rather it should be We will eat outside, weather permitting. because allowing does not collocate in this sentence. – user13267 Sep 24 '13 at 0:33
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Oxford Dictionaries Online has two definitions for clunky. They are:

solid, heavy and old-fashioned

and

making a clunking sound

These two are clearly quite different from the following definitions of clumsy, from the same dictionary:

awkward in movement or in handling things

done awkwardly or without skill

difficult to handle or use; unwieldy

lacking social skills; tactless

On the broader question of synonyms, even where two words do seem to have more or less identical meanings, they will often be used in different contexts.

  • For clunky, in modern, less-than-formal use, I can think of "ponderously ungraceful or unsophisticated" (dictionary.com), which gets closer to clumsy as defined above. Clunky can also mean old and worn out/awkward, or even just out-of-date (in the sense of cars/computers/phones etc.) which could come from either or both of the OED definitions. – Chris H Sep 23 '13 at 15:33
  • ODO is not the OED. – Barrie England Sep 23 '13 at 15:39
  • It certainly isn't, though (M-W)[merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clunky], a better reference than ODO, has "old and not working well". I also don't know about various dictionaries' update cycles regarding informal uses of existing words, with respect to the context in which the OP knows the term. – Chris H Sep 23 '13 at 15:44
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I forget who said, "All words are infinitely polysemous," but it's probably also true that 'No words are truly synonymous.' Words will have some senses that largely overlap with those of other words, but not totally overlap. They will usually also have distinctly different senses. And when we get on to connotations, the same word will conjure up different nuances in different people. Probably, no two words are totally interchangeable (ignoring variants like artefact / artifact).

Coincidentally, I said to someone the other day, "I must be careful not to waltz off with the key." I then thought of possible substitutes for waltz in the pretty transparent idiom, and decided that I couldn't immediately think of any that are actually used. (Though apparently, the shuffle is a type of dance.) There are some amusing candidates - tango, foxtrot, conga, jive, passacaglia, slosh....

John Lawler has added: Language doesn't have any use for two words that are exactly the same; there's always contexts where you use one and not the other for some particular effect.

  • Isn't 'waltz off a synonym for 'go off' or 'wander off'? – fred2 Sep 23 '13 at 15:21
  • @fred2, but the implications are different - wander might be slightly disorderly, waltz rather smooth and precise, hence the question. – Chris H Sep 23 '13 at 15:27
  • It is a truism that no two words are completely synonymous. If they were, one of them would supplant the other. But there's always some way in which they differ. – John Lawler Sep 23 '13 at 16:29
  • @JohnLawler Nope. See GregHullender's answer (on flammable / inflammable). – Izkata Sep 23 '13 at 19:14
  • @Izkata See mac's comment on Greg Hullender's answer. – called2voyage Sep 23 '13 at 21:42
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The best way to interpret synonyms is that they are words that are interchangeable in at least some nontrivial contexts. Almost none are 100% equivalent.

Thirty years ago, I led a software team that built one of the first online electronic thesaurus products, based on a Merriam-Webster thesaurus. The Webster editors at the time kept hammering at us that we could not get away with modeling synonyms as words that mean exactly the same thing--not even when we separated them by senses. That is a "word" wasn't just a string like "run"--it was an entry like "run 6" from the 9th New Collegiate dictionary. That means that even when we confined a pair of synonyms to specific dictionary definitions, there would still be differences between them in certain contexts. For example, "He rushed/ran/bolted to the door" all mean about the same thing, but rushed and bolted make implications about motive which ran does not.

In the entire thesaurus project (spanning two years, if I remember correctly), the only pair that we all agreed were completely identical was "flammable" and "inflammable."

  • I've always read rushed/ran/bolted as increasing in speed, they don't really say anything about motive. – Izkata Sep 23 '13 at 19:03
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    Your closing comment about the one incontrovertible synonym pair made me go "ugh." I avoid the word "inflammable" as it is all too easy to improperly decompose to in-flammable, i.e. not flammable. Thus your consensus synonym is often interpreted as an antonym. When you're talking about things bursting into flame, ambiguity is best avoided. – mac Sep 23 '13 at 20:17
  • Rushed means I was in a hurry to get somewhere. Bolted suggests that I'm in a hurry to get away from somewhere. These are just nuances--we don't have many hard-and-fast rules at this level. – Greg Hullender Sep 23 '13 at 20:28
  • Collins: << Usage: Flammable and inflammable are interchangeable when used of the properties of materials. Flammable is, however, often preferred for warning labels as there is less likelihood of misunderstanding (inflammable being sometimes taken to mean not flammable). Inflammable is preferred in figurative contexts: this could prove to be an inflammable situation. >> I'd say that the last statement in particular rules out their being 'completely identical '. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 25 '13 at 8:28
  • Yep. But this was the only pair that the Webster editors were prepared to agree was close enough to identical to allow us to equivalence them in the product we shipped. – Greg Hullender Sep 25 '13 at 16:30
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I believe that while synonyms may be very close in meaning, they often differ subtly in meaning and contextual usage.

Taking your example, I would more likely describe a person or his actions as being clumsy and an inanimate object as being clunky. These descriptions come more from my personal experience than any formal definition. Unfortunately, you may find others who would disagree with my usage.

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The late linguist Dwight Bolinger famously wrote in Aspects of Language (1968):

A difference in syntactic form always spells a difference in meaning.

To this day, many linguists take this as a basic assumption about language. One linguist, Arnold Zwicky, refers to this rule as Bolinger's Dictum, and he presents his own revised (and hedged) version of the rule:

Lexical and syntactic variation is unfree; variants usually have (subtly) different meanings or discourse functions, which can be observed in certain contexts (though these differences might not be of consequence in many contexts).

What about the terms you've chosen to test this rule? My intuition is that clumsy tends to apply to people, while clunky tends to apply to objects (physical and otherwise). Is my intuition correct? There are two ways I can find out:

  • I can check dictionaries, which are attempts to summarize actual usage.
  • I can look directly at usage by searching through corpora such as The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA).

Of course, dictionaries give different definitions from one another. They attempt to describe the usage of a word by dividing it into multiple senses, but the dividing lines between them are often arbitrary, and actual usage often overlaps multiple senses or falls between the cracks. For this reason, I urge you to cross-reference multiple dictionaries whenever possible, and to look at real examples when you need to get a more specific idea of how words are used.

I looked through results in COCA for both terms and checked several dictionaries using the multi-dictionary search tool OneLook. The definitions that seemed to fit what I observed best were Collins' definition of clumsy:

  1. lacking in skill or physical coordination
  2. awkwardly constructed or contrived

And Merriam-Webster's definition of clunky:

  1. large and awkward in form or appearance
  2. old and not working well
  3. badly or awkwardly made or done

As you can see, there's some overlap, but they appear to have broadly different meanings. Here's what I noticed when I looked through results in COCA:

  • Clumsy is more common (1940 results) than clunky (491 results).

  • As I expected, I couldn't find any results where clunky directly described people. People (and other creatures) are often described as clumsy, though; this is sense one, "lacking in skill or physical coordination". The word can describe them directly:

    A. He was so clumsy and uncoordinated that he couldn't even ride a bicycle.

    B. An early pterosaur, Dimorphodon was quite clumsy. Its big head and four-and-a-half-foot wingspan meant that Dimorphodon had trouble balancing.

    Or sometimes parts of the body are described as clumsy:

    C. But my fingers were clumsy in my leather mitten, and when I stopped to pull it off, other kids rear-ended me, knocking me sideways.

    And it often describes people (or objects) indirectly, by describing the manner in which they move or do things or by describing their actions:

    D. And, in my own clumsy manner, I'd answered.

    E. Finally, the two bolted, moving with their clumsy attempts at sneakiness out onto the street, and vanished from sight.

    F. I hadn't made such a clumsy outburst since high school.

    G. Their movements were clumsy.

  • Sense two, "awkwardly constructed or contrived", was less common, but more common than I expected.

    H. Dah'nok could not deny that the blade looked small and clumsy and poorly constructed, nothing like the great blade that used to hang over the window of his cottage.

    I. It has a clumsy upside-down purge bulb.

    J. But Henry had left a paper trail which exposed the hollowness of the army's case against Dreyfus. Although Picquart was fired by his military superiors from running the Statistical Section and was eventually jailed for his persistence in trying to reopen the case, Henry's clumsy forgeries were soon uncovered.

  • As you can see from examples H-J, physical objects can be described as clumsy, but they were more likely to be described as clunky. I found examples for all three senses that Merriam-Webster gives, but the examples didn't always fit neatly into one category:

    K. The boots weren't too heavy or clunky for the former, nor too light or flexy for the latter.

    L. They either don't have the tight grip needed to loosen a stubborn bolt or they're too clunky to turn in the allotted space.

    M. People also give off heat signatures, so if a person's heat signature is higher than usual, this could be a clue that they are "wearing something big and clunky under their clothes - you know, wearing a bomb," adds Major Sawyer.

    N. Swarm-bots, as they exist today, are fairly large and clunky.

    O. Job seekers had long complained that the old system was clunky.

    P. The stunted professor sat facing her class in a special armchair mounted on a raised dais that kept her feet in their clunky boots from reaching the floor.

    Note how objects can be described as clumsy or clunky, but in H we have small and clumsy, while in K-N we have heavy or clunky, too clunky to turn in the allotted space, big and clunky, and large and clunky. We see that clumsy is more compatible with the "small" meaning, while clunky tends to be more compatible with "large", often "undesirably large". (Though clumsy certainly doesn't imply "small", as we can see from B.)

  • Technology in particular tends to be described as clunky, especially computer programs and user interfaces. I think the core meaning here is sense 3, "badly or awkwardly made or done", but there seems to be some overlap with the other two senses as well:

    Q. The cumbersome keypad was clunky to operate, and we wished we could customize the on-screen data.

    R. And although the device might seem a little clunky at first, Boxtel says the exoskeleton feels natural now; she thinks it's the next best thing to being restored to a physically able state.

    S. So take that as a lesson when you encounter a new technology: the first incarnations might be clunky, but that's no real indicator of its staying power.

    T. A decade ago, the technology was clunky, unreliable and hard to operate, and broadband Internet wasn't widely available, Mattke said.

    U. Navigation can be a little clunky - for instance, some prefer e-readers with the more intuitive setup of a button on the left for going back and a button on the right for going forward - and because it's not a touch screen, the menus can be cumbersome.

    V. The Web interface feels clunky and is best suited to finding music you already want, not for making new discoveries.

    But clumsy is occasionally used in roughly the same way:

    W. But OpenOffice faces an uncertain future, and LibreOffice is bogged down by a clumsy, outdated interface and iffy file compatibility.

So there's a bit of overlap, but the two have distinct meanings and patterns of use.

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It is a good question, and the answer is that there are often (but not always) subtle differences in meaning.

As a native speaker, I can see a clear difference between 'clumsy' and 'clunky', for example. A person can be 'clumsy', and many are. You would not describe a person as 'clunky' if you wanted to describe someone who was careless or accident-prone. Clunky would usually apply to something like a piece of machinery ('the car was clunky'). Likewise, a piece of machinery would usually not be described as 'clumsy', unless you meant that it was clumsily designed.

In other words, you either need access to a very good dictionary, such as the OED, or learn the differences through experience.

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Synonyms are the similar words or related words that have nearly or exactly the same meaning.

For e.g . : Synonym of clever is intelligent . So, both have same meaning : Sharp mind.

Synonyms can be used keeping in mind the situation whether it is formal or informal. Context of the word.

Synonyms also vary as per the context where the word is used. For complete details , regarding to different types of synonyms of a single word. Use www.thesaurus.com

Here, in this dictionary, you can get various synonyms for a single word that differ as per length, complexity as well as context where the word is used..

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