« The envy of academics | Main | The worst opening imaginable »

Stationery, with an 'e'

If you like, you can go to and sign an electronic petition to change the spelling of stationery* to stationary. It would simplify the language, and the organizers apparently believe that dictionaries have the power to do this.

The petition, however, has garnered a mere 38 signatures, and a third of those are “Anonymous” — no doubt reflecting anxiety over losing their jobs if the signatories’ radical proclivities become public.

Moreover, Bill Brohaugh points out at Everything You Know About English Is Wrong that while stationary and stationery both derive ultimately from the Latin stationarius, or a fixed place where something is located, "the person operating from a stationary location known as a station was a stationer, and therefore the adjective ‘stationery wares,’ which know is known as stationery.’ ” There is a reason to maintain the distinction, and Mr. Brohaugh is sticking to it. So am I.

Petitions like this, if they are not simply jokes, betray a misunderstanding of how things work. Dictionaries, for one, follow the language; they do not legislate for it. The availability of dictionaries and the spread of public education over the past couple of centuries have probably had a strong influence in standardizing spelling and some usages, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Language is purely democratic: If enough people use particular words or grammatical constructions long enough, including usages that are “errors,” they become part of the language. That is why we no longer speak Anglo-Saxon, or, for that matter, Norman French.

You cannot lobby to change the language, and you cannot legislate changes. All the simplified spelling efforts — including those by George Bernard Shaw and the mighty Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick — have had little or no effect. The Academie francaise enunciates strictures to which very few Francophones pay much attention, and the English-speaking nations have always stoutly resisted the establishment of any such academy. George Orwell was mistaken in speculating that a totalitarian society could control people’s thought by controlling their vocabulary; the example of the late and unlamented Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is pertinent here.

Language, like Ol’ Man River, just keeps rolling along, and attempts to dam or divert its course rarely produce the consequences that the would-be engineers intend.


* That’s paper, for those of you who may be confused.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:27 AM | | Comments (15)


okay, this is a mistake I see all over the place and it really bugs me. In fact, there is a fancy pen & writing paper store here in San Francisco whose front window is etched in tasteful script with the names of items it sells ("writing implements," etc.). Well, they spelled the word "stationary." At the risk of pointing out an embarrassment of which they might already be aware but can't afford to fix, I went in and pointed out the error. I was met with blank stares. Not only did they not know about the mistake, they didn't seem to care. If I owned a camera phone, I'd have snapped a picture of the offending window.

Sorry, slightly off topic. But I needed to let that out. Thanks.

Didn't those who have trouble with the spelling learn "e is for envelope"?

"e" is in letter, "a" is in standing.

I would sign the petition only under the express condition that the letterhead in question be not moving.

I agree. In a recent Stationers Guild Blog article on the same subject, I suggested that Google could lend a hand to help with this problem.

>I suggested that Google could lend a hand to help with this problem

Google is really more of an enabler here -- its "Did you mean?" feature leads users to the statistically more probable spelling rather than what might be a correct one. Given enough people who use "stationary," that will be the suggested alternative. I think.

Spelling reform will come from below. It's conceivable that the vast increase in writing that has been spawned by the Web will give some weight to spellings that are historically "wrong" but that people favor (as with "stationary"), and to simplified spellings such as "thru" and "altho." (If you find this objectionable, remember that Americans prefer "plow" to "plough," "draft" to "draught," etc. We're just used to those differences, is all.)

For example, we've seen a widespread adoption of "lite" as an alternative to "light." Interestingly, what seems to have happened is that "lite" has claimed a specific semantic space once owned by "light" (with reference to diet foods, for example).

From a purely pragmatic POV (as distinct from a etymological or "we've always done it this way" perspective), spellings such as "lite" and "tho" make sense. To have homonyms that are spelled differently is sort of odd anyway, and in many cases ("stationary/stationery" might be one such example) the distinction in spellings might be more of a shibboleth than of any real value for understanding.

Just a thought, anyway.

The spelling change I think may become officially listed in dictionaries before "lite" is "donut." I see this spelling in raw and in edited copy frequently now. "Doughnut" seems to be a forgotten spelling.

As someone who can make doughnuts from scratch, I am partial to the traditional spelling. Doughnuts are made from dough, not "do."

I wasn't going to post this but after listening to the latest installment of "Surely You Jest" I couldn't make things any worse.

Barbara Phillips Long wrote "Doughnuts are made from dough, not "do.""

Not if they are venison donuts, made from "doe."

Both "donut" and "lite" are already in dictionaries:

For "donut," AHD lists it as "dough·nut also do·nut". A Googlefight reveals that "donut" is the more popular spelling by a factor of, like, 500, wow:

PS Donuts are made from batter, no? :-)

Language is not 'purely democratic,' John. It is governed by a conservative-leaning media and linguistics, one of those academic fraternities which does NOT foster meetings of amateur enthusiasts in your local neighbourhood (except online).

I've always suspected that iPetitions weren't petitions at all, but were an underhanded way of compiling e-mail address lists for spammers.

I think it is unfortunate that dictionaries "follow the language" without attempting to specify correctness where necessary. The currents words in question can be understood by context, as is the case with many words which have multiple meanings. However, if a NASA Risk Manager told a subordinate to purchase assurance that the rocket would fly successfully, there may be no payment forthcoming for an unsuccessful event. "Assurance" is NOT the same as "Insurance" or "Ensurance", but some dictionaries merrily permit ignorance to rule to the detriment of the language and communication.

What next? Miniscule?

Barbara: who's to say that 'dough' wont eventually be spelt 'do'?
Spelling needs to be an efficient tool for learning literacy. History and tradition ar interesting, but should not stand in the way of upgrading.
The penny farthing was an interesting invention, but i'd rather ride a mountain bike!
Similarly, i'd rather hav up-to-date, modernized, efficient spelling.

Hey Retired-

Doughnuts are actually made from a dough. The key being that they contain yeast.

Living in a non-english speaking country, I find it easier to write donut, so I can avoid the whole "ough" conversation when it comes to pronounciation.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected