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I've looked up the word clumsy in oxford dictionary. It says:

(of people and animals) moving or doing things in a very awkward way.

Afterwards, I've looked up the word awkward and seen an example:

He tried to dance, but he was too clumsy and awkward.

At first I thought clumsy and awkward were synonyms, but now I'm quite confused when seeing they stand together. Is it unnecessary to use both of them at the same time? What is the difference between them? Thank you!

  • If the inexperienced dancer trips over his own feet or bumps into things while moving, that's clumsy. If he doesn't move smoothly and with smart and precise movements, swaying and gyrating in time to the music, then he's moving awkwardly. If he's doing both, picture him dancing like he's having an epileptic fit, and knocking over the tables as he goes. – Caius Jard Sep 5 '17 at 13:06
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If clumsy is used to describe a person, it usually means that that person lacks physical coordination: they trip and fall over a lot, or are always dropping things, or something similar.

However, clumsy can also be used somewhat metaphorically to mean "disjointed" or "haphazard" or even, as dictionary.com puts it, "ill-contrived." Example:

Donald Trump's tweet of himself eating a taco salad was a clumsy attempt at connecting with Hispanic voters.

Awkward, when used to describe a situation, can be pretty similar to the metaphorical use of clumsy, or it can be used to mean that something about the situation was socially weird: like if you're trying to make a good impression with your significant other's parents and you make some offhand comment about "oh I hate pie, I prefer cake," but then you find out that one of your SO's parents owns a bakery where they only make pies.

When awkward is used to describe a person, it usually means they are socially awkward: maybe they ask questions that are a little too personal when first meeting someone, or they have a habit of standing too close to people, or whatever.

Mostly, I would say using "clumsy" and "awkward" in the same sentence would be overkill and possibly redundant, but maybe not necessarily. In your example sentence

He tried to dance, but he was too clumsy and awkward.

I would say that clumsy describes the physical lack of coordination that prevented his dancing from being good, and awkward describes the unpleasant atmosphere that resulted from having to watch his awful dancing.

  • Summarizing, fundamental meanings are 'clumsy' for physical performance, and 'awkward' for social performance. You can use each in the other's meaning as a sort of metaphor, but it's often awkward. – SF. Sep 4 '17 at 9:24
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    You'd have to be pretty awkward to use such clumsy language. – fluffysheap Sep 4 '17 at 9:40
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    Not sure I agree with your interpretation of the dictionary example; nothing in that sentence leads me to believe that awkward refers to the atmosphere generated – Caius Jard Sep 5 '17 at 12:56
  • @CaiusJard I can see "awkward" potentially meaning lots of different things in that sentence, but absent context, it's just up to the imagination. I imagine a scene out of a movie where the one weird guy jumps in to start dancing, trying to be cool, but everyone around him just stops and stares, and then eventually the DJ notices something is happening and stops the music. In that case, the atmosphere is awkward because the person did something awkward. But how do we communication what exactly it was about him that was awkward that is somehow different from clumsy dancing... (1/2) – cjl750 Sep 5 '17 at 14:59
  • especially without some extra background about who the guy is? (Is he a social outcast so anything he does is gonna be awkward, or is he the captain of the football team, but he just sucks at dancing?) Feel free to suggest an edit. (2/2) – cjl750 Sep 5 '17 at 15:00
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Like many synonyms, there is some degree of overlap in meaning. However, clumsy generally means inept, as in lacking dexterity skill. Awkward can also mean this, but in addition it can mean uncomfortable, lacking in social grace, or simply weird.

For example, someone with a clumsy sense of humor might ruin a joke by telling it badly, but someone with an awkward sense of humor might tell an odd joke that makes everyone feel uncomfortable.

Again, these are only small differences in nuance. In cjl750's example with Donald Trump, the attempt is called "clumsy" because it lacked finesse. The reason it lacked finesse is that taco salads are not traditional Mexican cuisine. This suggested Trump lacked an understanding of Hispanic culture, in a way that many interpreted as racist. So the attempt could have been called awkward because the result also made people feel uncomfortable.

In the context of the dance, "clumsy" means that the dancer lacked the skill to follow the steps properly, and "awkward" implies he made many strange movements that did not fit what was expected.

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A clumsy person is lacking coordination and control. In the circumstances described (dancing), you might expect a clumsy person to be unaware of their body position (backing into a wall, standing on partner's feet, etc).

An awkward person may well be in control of their body, but uncertain as to where they should be and what will happen next (the dancer who is reactive, always slightly behind the music, and only moving when their partner guides them to).

There's probably more overlap than difference in the meanings, and they are often used interchangeably. Both words can apply to social behaviour as well as physical (for example, one can ask a question clumsily or awkwardly - the clumsy question could be one that doesn't consider the other person's feelings, and an awkwardly-asked question might be one where the asker might be trying to to be tactful and over-complicating the question).

Awkward has a wider range of meanings - it can also apply to a person being deliberately obstructive (in a negotiation, for example). It can also apply to inanimate objects - an awkward bend in a narrow road is one that forces you to move awkwardly to negotiate it, an awkward step could be one that is too high for most people to use comfortably, and an awkward mathematical problem may take many steps to solve.

My summary:

clumsy: uncontrolled, accident-prone
awkward: uncertain, more complicated than necessary

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I use "clumsy" when somebody tries to do something and fails. To me failure is a critical part of clumsiness. A clumsy throw to first lost them the game. A clumsy first kiss that landed on her nose.

I use "awkward" when somebody does something uncomfortably; including when they are being too self-conscious, but do not (technically) fail: An awkward first kiss that is indeed a kiss. An awkward throw of a baseball or an awkward catch, an awkward insult. To me, awkward looks or feels un-natural (not a natural movement, phrasing, etc).

To echo another response: Donald Trump eating a Taco bowl to connect with Hispanics was politically clumsy: It did not work. But to me it wasn't awkward; he looked natural enough being served a taco bowl.

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