Stationary vs. stationery?

Stationary” is an adjective that means ‘immobile,” while “stationery” is a noun for ‘letter paper and envelopes’ or other office writing material.

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What is the difference between stationary and stationery?

Stationary” and “stationery” are commonly confused words because they are homophones, which means they have similar pronunciations but different meanings and spellings:

  • The adjective stationary means ‘remaining in one place’ or ‘immobile.’ 
  • The noun stationery means ‘writing materials’ or ‘letter paper with matching envelopes.’ 

What does stationery mean?

The word stationery is a mass noun that we use to describe writing paper, office supplies, and especially paper collections with matching envelopes. 

How to use stationery in a sentence?

  • “Mother bought me new stationery for writing letters.” 
  • “Let’s buy new envelopes and paper from the stationery store.”
  • “He has an impressive set of antiquated stationery, such as parchment paper, feathered quills, a block of wax seal, and a brass seal stamp.” 

Synonyms

Envelopes, letterhead, note cards, notepad, office supplies, papyrus, parchment, pen and paper, writing paper. 

Etymology of stationery

The noun stationery entered the English language in the early 18th-century as a term for ‘bookseller’ or ‘publisher.’ As explained by The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the Middle English noun derives from medieval Latin stationarius (Chantrell 483)

At the time, Latin stationarius meant ‘a tradesman at a fixed location, not traveling.’ Eventually, the Latin word developed into “stationer,” a noun we now use to describe someone who sells books and stationery (483). 

What does stationary mean?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the adjective stationary describes something as ‘not moving’ or ‘not intended to be moved.’ Additional definitions include ‘not changing in quantity or condition’ or, for describing planetary movements, ‘having no observable movement in longitude’ (“Stationary 1703). 

How to use stationary in a sentence?

  • “During the pandemic, we exercised inside on a stationary bike.” 
  • “The once stationary population of birds has now dwindled to scant individuals.” 
  • “The bus collided into a stationary vehicle.” 
  • “During August, the planet Mars appears stationary in the sky overhead.” 

Writing tip for “stationary

The adjective “stationary” is a non-comparable adjective. As explained by Garner’s Modern English Usage, a non-comparable adjective is one that describes “absolute states or conditions” that cannot be most, more, less, or least (Garner 860).

Furthermore, non-comparable adjectives like “stationary” cannot follow intensives like “very,” “quite,” or “largely.” The most famous non-comparable adjective is “unique,” which means ‘one of a kind.’ Something cannot be “more” or “very” unique because it’s already distinguished from anything of its kind (Garner 20).  

Additional examples of non-comparable adjectives include absolute, entire, infinite, perfect, principal, singular, or universal (20). 

Synonyms

[1] Anchored, frozen, halted, immobile, immobilized, inert, in place, motionless, parked, stagnant, standing, static, still, stopped, unmoving. 

[2] Changeless, constant, established, fixed, invariable, lasting, settled, stable, steady, unchanging, unvarying. 

[3] Circumpolar.

Antonyms

[1] Active, mobile, movable, moving, restless, unsteady. 

[2] Capricious, changing, fluctuating, fluid, mercurial, uncertain, unpredictable, unstable, varying, volatile. 

[3] Ephemeral, fleeting, passing, transitory

Etymology of stationary

Stationary” is a late Middle English adjective that originates from Latin stationarius for ‘belonging to a military station.’ Latin stationarius stems from station- for ‘standing,’ which further derives from stare (‘to stand’). (“Stationary 1703). 

Additional sentence examples for stationary and stationery

To further our understanding of how to use stationary and stationery correctly, let’s take a look at recent publications and their usage. 

Sentence examples for “stationary

  • “How can indoor cycling, on a stationary bike, be utilized with high-intensity interval training in mind?” –– The New York Times
  • “The 21-day-aged prime rib will still be sliced to order at a zeppelin-like cart, but it will no longer roll to each table — it will be stationary.” –– San Francisco Chronicle 
  • “Lake Geneva’s holiday parade becomes a stationary display because of coronavirus.” –– Lake Geneva Regional News

Sentence examples for “stationery

  • “Rosie Assoulin launches a cheerful and sustainable stationery line with Papier.” –– Vogue
  • “In East Sussex, England, Caroline Kent derives inspiration for her hand-drawn stationery from the exuberant meadow just outside her window.” –– The New York Times
  • “I have loved collecting stationery ever since I could remember: letter and envelope sets, puffy stickers, glitter gel pens…” –– Vox

How to remember stationary vs. stationery?

To remember the difference between stationary and stationery, try using our simple mnemonic device of associating the -er of “stationery” with the -er of “paper.” 

Additional reading

If you enjoyed learning about homophones like stationary vs. stationery, check out The Word Counter’s recent posts, such as:

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between stationary and stationery with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: the word “stationery” is an adjective meaning “writing paper and envelopes.” 
    a. True
    b. False
  2. “Stationery” and “stationary” are homophones, which means they have similar __________, but different meanings and __________.
    a. Pronunciations, meanings
    b. Spellings, pronunciations
    c. Pronunciations, spellings
    d. Meanings, spellings
  3. Which of the following phrases does not use the right word for “stationary” or “stationery?” 
    a. Stationary bicycle 
    b. Stationery vehicle 
    c. Desk stationery 
    d. A and C
  4. The word stationary is a __________ adjective. 
    a. Quantitative 
    b. Non-comparable
    c. Possessive 
    d. Comparable
  5. The noun stationery was an 18th-century word for __________.
    a. Bookseller
    b. Military station 
    c. Copywriter
    d. None of the above

Answers

  1. B
  2. C
  3. B
  4. B
  5. A

Sources

  1. Chantrell, Glynnis, Ed. “Stationery.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 483.
  2. Garner, B. “Adjectives (B)” and “Stationary; stationery.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 20–860.
  3. Lee, Vivian. “The best 80 cents I ever spent: A pen I use to write to my friends.” Vox, Vox Media, 18 Aug 2020. 
  4. “Stationary.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 1703.
  5. Stationery.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  6. Stationery.” Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, 3rd ed., Thesaurus.com, 2020. 
  7. Wales Bonner, Flo. “A Garden Designed to Run Wild.” The New York Times, 26 Aug 2020.