Stationary vs. Stationery

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Writers have long been stymied by the resemblance between stationary and stationery, or by ignorance of the fact that distinct words exist to describe the condition of motionlessness and the class of materials for written correspondence. Progress may make this point moot, because our society is slowly but inexorably abandoning stationery as a medium of communication, but it’s still important to make the distinction.

Stationery is so spelled because it’s derived from stationer, the archaic word for a bookseller or publisher; these merchants also sold writing materials and implements. (Stationer, in turn, stems from the Latin term stationem, meaning “station,” which acquired the sense of “market stall.” Of course, the Latin word is the origin of stationary, too. Something stationary is something that is maintaining its station.)

Similar-looking words don’t share that direct etymology but are related. Static, as an adjective meaning “showing little change,” comes from the Greek word statikos, “causing to stand,” which was borrowed into Latin as staticus. The basis of statikos also led to stasis, which means “slowing,” “stagnation,” or “stability.” State, status, statute, statistic, and statue, as well as the suffix -stat (thermostat, and so on) — and stet, the editing directive meaning “leave as it was” — are all relatives of station and its derivatives.

Do you have difficulty remembering when to use stationary and when to write stationery? Various mnemonic aids have been devised, the simplest of which, I think, is to think of the “ar” in stationary as are, as in “where you are.” Or remember that stationery refers to letters and envelopes and the like, and the words for those materials have es but no as.

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11 thoughts on “Stationary vs. Stationery”

  1. I was taught a brilliant mnemonic for stationary and stationery when I was at school.

    A car is stationary, a pen is stationery (these will line up in a fixed-width font):



  2. Confusion reigned in my supermarket when it was remodeled. At one point there was a helpful sign explaining: “The stationary aisle has moved.”

  3. “The principal is your pal.” I learned that line from the Mary Tyler Moore show. See – television doesn’t completely rot your brain.

  4. The way I remember it is that both stationery and letter have an e in them, and both stationary and stay have an a.

  5. Old joke: sign in front of office supply store says “Stationary Sale.” Somebody comes in and explains the difference between stationary and stationery. The owner nods and says, “Right. It’s on sale because it ain’t moving.”

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