Word Choice: Stationary vs. Stationery
  • 2-minute read
  • 3rd October 2016

Word Choice: Stationary vs. Stationery

What do you call a pencil that can’t move? Stationary stationery! If you didn’t find that hilarious, we assume it must be because you’re not sure about the difference between “stationary” and “stationery” (we refuse to accept that our puns are inherently unfunny).

"Why aren't you laughing? Is this thing on?" (Photo: flickr/ Benjamin Ragheb)
“Why aren’t you laughing? Is this thing on?”
(Photo: flickr/Benjamin Ragheb)

More seriously, the terms “stationary” and “stationery” are commonly confused due to looking so similar on paper. However, since they also refer to completely different things, you need to use them correctly if you’re writing for college or work.

Stationary (Not Moving)

“Stationary” is an adjective meaning “immobile” or “not moving.” If you’ve ever been to a spinning class at a gym, for example, you’ll have ridden a “stationary bicycle.”

Stationary Bicycles
Spinner 1: “Are we nearly there yet?”
Spinner 2: “Just shut up and pedal.”

It can also be used to describe something that can move, but isn’t currently:

The driver collided with a stationary vehicle, but nobody was hurt.

Another use of “stationary” is to describe an unchanging condition or quantity, such as in:

A stationary population can enhance social stability.

In either case, “stationary” refers to something that doesn’t move.

Stationery (Office Materials)

The noun “stationery” refers to office supplies, particularly paper and other writing equipment:

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We’re running low on stationery, so I’ve ordered paper and toner.

It can also be used as an adjective when describing something related to stationery, such as a “stationery set” (a set of writing equipment) or a “stationery store” (a shop that sells stationery).

Technically, the coffee doesn't count as stationery, even if most office workers would stop functioning entirely without it.
Technically, the coffee doesn’t count as stationery, even if most office workers would stop functioning without it.

Stationary or Stationery?

Since one of these terms is spelled with “-ar-” and the other with “-er-,” the key thing is remembering which is which. Luckily, this is made easier by the fact that “paper” is spelled with an “-er” at the end, as well as being an important office supply:

Paper is a type of stationery.

As such, if you’re describing something that, like paper, can be found in an office, the correct term will typically be “stationery.” Otherwise, the right word will be “stationary.” Remember:

Stationary = Not moving

Stationery = Office supplies

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