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:
- lacking in skill or physical coordination
- awkwardly constructed or contrived
And Merriam-Webster's definition of clunky:
- large and awkward in form or appearance
- old and not working well
- 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.