Stationary stationery

Stationery means stationery goods, i.e. items sold by a stationer, such as paper, pens, ink, envelopes, and other office supplies and writing and printing material.

Stationary means immobile or apparently immobile, not moving, fixed in a station, or not changing in quantity, course, or condition.

Stationary also used to mean stationery; both terms derive from the Latin stationarius, stationery arriving indirectly by stationer + -y. The words have had distinct meanings for hundreds of years, yet they are still confused even by stationery companies (click image to enlarge):

Stan Carey - Sadipal adhesive paper, stationary stationery

At least the company’s website has the correct spelling.

EDIT: Here’s the same slip on the BBC News website:

If you have trouble remembering which is which, a mnemonic can help. You could picture a stationary car or van and think of the ‘a’ common to those words, or think of the ‘e’s common to stationery and letter or envelope. More elaborately, you could imagine a taxi driver called Harry who waits for you at the station. This is Station ‘Arry, and he’s not moving, he’s waving.

4 Responses to Stationary stationery

  1. Tim says:

    The way I began to remember the difference was that I thought of the “e” in stationery as representing “eraser”, which of course is a piece of stationery. From there is was just a matter of time before the two became very distinct in my mind.

    I still think of erasers whenever I write one or the other, though! I wonder what other mnemonics people use for similar words — or even similar things in life? Make spelling a little easier; especially for us RP speakers who differentiate between the noun and verb form of a word, such as practice / practise. ;)

  2. Stan says:

    Tim: Thank you, eraser works just as well as letter or envelope! I meant to invite suggestions for mnemonics, so I’m glad you got the ball rolling. I have included mnemonics in a few of my previous posts on spelling, especially this one, because I have found them to be potentially very useful. As a young child I learned to picture a stationary car, or letters and envelopes, before writing stationary or stationery, respectively; and although I am no longer likely to forget the distinction, my mind still stubbornly conjures up the images.

  3. I just remember that stationery is sold by a stationer, not a stationar. So if the pens-and-pencils stationery has the ‘e’ spelling, that means that the standing-still stationary has the ‘a’ spelling.

    OK, not a very exciting way of remembering, but it works for me.

  4. Stan says:

    Whatever works, JD! Thanks for contributing.

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