Stationary vs. Stationery
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.
Browse all articles on the Misused Words category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!