One means not moving. The other is something you write on. I’ve discussed these words before (close to two years ago).
But before this week, this was an error that didn’t worry me much. I know the difference and I’m careful to get it right. When I’ve encountered it while doing work for others it’s been a simple spelling error: I correct it and move on. I’ve never had a situation where the actual meaning of the word was ambiguous.
Until this week.
As a freelance writer and editor, I work with many different kinds of clients over a broad range of services and businesses. The vast majority are small businesses and individuals, but I do a small amount of work with a national merchandising company, which in turn does most of its business with a major national retail store (both of which shall remain unnamed). This sometimes includes reviewing forms used by merchandising reps before and after store service calls.
One of the online post-service reports for a particular product included two questions involving stationery (or stationary — I’ve kept all spellings from the original).
To the question “Where did you place the product?” the rep was to choose from several options, including “Front of Store, Check Lane Endcap, Stationary Front End Cap, and Endcap (Other).” Putting aside the inconsistent use of “endcap” (two words or a compound?), “stationary” immediately raised a flag. The store has a stationery section. But it also has multiple styles of endcap, including ones that are fixed (stationary) and ones that are on wheels (non-stationary). From only this question, it’s not clear which was meant.
A later question asked the rep to note the footage (that’s retail-speak for shelf space) filled by the product. Among the fields to complete is “Stationery front end cap”.
Now wait a minute, I thought: What are they talking about here? Those fixed endcaps, not the moveable ones? Or do they mean the section of the store? In the past, products from this supplier have been set in the stationery section (near pens, paper, and other office products). But they’ve also been set in numerous other locations. Which were they describing?
Conceivably, they could have been talking about both (allowing for a different context for each of those questions). There was really no way to tell from the material at hand. Fortunately, I was able to pull older documentation for this project and discovered that the directive did, indeed, refer consistently to the “stationery” section (although, to add to the entertainment, this was prominently misspelled “stationary” in the most widely circulated memo, sent to between 3600 and 4000 people). The older documents resolved the problem…and only just before this potentially confusing item was rolled out to over 1500 reps (who shouldn’t be wasting their time puzzling over spelling errors).
As the earlier post explains, stationary and stationery derive from the same Latin root. They parted ways centuries ago, and while at first glance their meanings seem completely unrelated, there’s a logical explanation for how each came about.
As different as the meanings of these two words are, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever have actual confusion over them — this was a first for me. But this unusual case proves that it can, in fact, happen. Good writing (or editing) isn’t always just a matter of spelling, so understanding your words in more depth is extremely helpful.