Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Stationary or Stationery?

How do you tell the difference between stationary or stationery? The two aren’t interchangeable: that single vowel does make a big difference.

Picture this: you’re at the gym and you’re ready to exercise. Do you get on a stationary or stationery bike?

How about when you’re going to send a snail-mail letter: do you write it out on stationary or stationery?

The two words are examples of homophones. Homophones are words that are sound alike but have different meanings and spellings. They can be tricky because you usually only know which word is being used if you see it in print.


Stationary has two meanings, although the more commonly-encountered one is “not moving” or “intended to remain in one place.” That exercise bike I mentioned a moment ago is a stationary bike because while you pedal and pedal away, you don’t actually go anywhere (geographically, at least) because the bicycle is mounted to the floor. Spinning classes use stationary bikes to burn calories without leaving the gym.

The second meaning of stationary is similar: unchanging, constant or fixed. An example of this use is describing an area as having a “stationary population,” which would mean it isn’t growing or declining.


Stationery, on the other hand, has a broader meaning than many people might actually realize. Most of us who use stationery when writing a letter tend to believe it includes the monogrammed paper and envelopes. However, the word is considered a noun that broadly covers various writing materials: not only the paper and envelopes but also the writing implements, different kinds of paper and other office supplies.

So a stationery store would have more than just packs of paper and corresponding envelopes for letter writing.

How do you keep them straight?

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know I like mnemonics, which are simple memory aids. Grammar has plenty of these for this very purpose.

If you can remember the word envelope, which starts with an E, then you can associate it with stationery, which then leaves the other word, the one with an A, for uses that don’t include envelopes and letter-writing.

It’s a simple trick, but many of us find this kind of trick helpful. Perhaps you will as well.


  1. Maybe I know Stationery so well – I know it encompasses more than just paper – because I’m a snail-mail writer myself, and have been for years, since I was a kid. Fifty years ago, when I was born, there was no other way to communicate with people across the pond.

    You know, this Response System has this weird thing that also happens in the writing part of Quora, too: if you put in the word I’m without capitalising the “i”, it changes the following word’s first letter to a capital. Check it out. I don’t know why it does that, but it does.

  2. As usual, I’m answering this before reading the post – it’s stationary to be still; Stationery refers to writing materials. How do I know? I just do, like most spelling.

    Let’s see if I’m “write”, ha, ha.

    There are times when I am wrong, so let me see if this is one of them.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.