Grammar Chaos: Stationary Versus Stationery—An Error That Won’t Budge

Posted on Mar 15, 2017

Stationary and stationery. With only one letter differentiating a piece of paper from a state of stillness, how do you know which is which?

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Both writers and editors tend to mix up homonyms. When two words sound alike when spoken, there is a tendency of these words to be interchanged. There are hundreds of words that we interchange often (sometimes too often), and in this blog series, we’ll try to go through as many as possible. This week, I’m going to help you differentiate stationary from stationery.

Let’s define stationary. It is an adjective which means “a state of not moving.” The word originated from the Latin statio, meaning “standing,” and aria, meaning “connected with.” Thus, stationary roughly translates to “connected with standing.” The word is an adjective; therefore, its use is to describe a noun or pronoun.

Stationery, on the other hand, has a pretty interesting backstory. It is the term for a special piece of writing paper, and it’s also an all-encompassing term for writing materials. In medieval civilization, a stationarius was a trader with a fixed station, the opposite of a traveling peddler. Stationarius, which was Latin, was then translated to stationer in English. Stationers often sold books and everything to do with them since books used to be done by hand. Upon the invention of the printer, the stationer’s business changed radically. The term bookseller was coined for merchants who sold books, and stationers sold only writing materials. Later on, a general word was coined to define all the things sold by a stationer: stationery.

As stated above, stationary is an adjective, and stationery is a noun. That already dictates how differently they are used. See the examples below:

   The cat remained stationary despite him shooing it.

   The cat decided to sit on the stationery, and now it’s ruined.

In the first sentence, stationary was used to define the cat. In the second sentence, the stationery was an object on which the cat sat.

Another example:

   The stationery remained stationary on the table even after a strong wind blew.

Got it? Excellent.

So now that you know the difference and we’ve used the two words in different sentences, I’ll leave you with a little tip for the next time you get confused. If you forget the difference, remember that an envelope is a piece of stationery, while a nonmoving elevator is stationary. If these words continue to confuse you, don’t fret. Even good writers and professional editors commit mistakes sometimes. We are all students of the world, and we continue to learn.


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