Stationery versus Stationary

Son and sun; knead and need; capitol and capital. All of these are homonyms. If you remember back to grade school, homonyms are words that are spelled differently but sound alike. They are also words that are commonly misused for one another. Even spell check is no match for the homonym.

Stationery and stationary are homonyms and both are frequently used incorrectly. Webster’s dictionary describes the words as follows:

sta-tion-ery
Function:
noun
1 : materials (as paper, pens, and ink) for writing or typing
2 : letter paper usually accompanied with matching envelopes

sta-tion-ary
Function:
adjective
1 : fixed in a station, course, or mode : immobile
2 : unchanging in condition <a stationary population>

The reason for the confusion stems from the words’ origin. Both come from the Latin word statio, meaning job, station, or position. The adjective stationary was used to refer to a fixed military position. Later, it was used to describe stationary sellers (as opposed to peddlers who would travel). These “stationary sellers” became known as stationers. Booksellers were often “stationers” because their items were too heavy to transport. It then made sense to term the items that “stationers” used, such as pens, ink, and paper as stationery. In England, stationary was first used as an adjective in 1626. It wasn’t until 1688 that paper and writing products became known by the noun stationery.

Puzzled? You’re not alone. Here’s how to differentiate quickly between the two. Think back, once again, to those grade school days. Remember the mnemonic device (a trick that helps you remember something) “i before e, except after c”? Here’s one for stationery: stationery with an e refers to envelopes.

If you have to think twice before writing these words on stationery, don’t be too hard on yourself; how these words perplex us is a stationary part of their nature.

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