Commonly Confused Words: Discreet and Discrete

Commonly Confused Words

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The words discreet and discrete are homophones: they sound alike but have different meanings.

Definitions

The adjective discreet means prudently self-restrained, cautious, or tactful. Discreet is most often used in reference to speech or writing. (The adjective discreet is related to the nouns discretion and discreetness.)

The adjective discrete means distinct or separate. Discrete is a less common word than discreet. (The adjective discrete is related to the noun discreteness.)

Examples

  • Invisible hearing aids are becoming an increasingly popular choice for those who want to be discreet about their hearing loss.
     
  • "The Bristol's engine missed a beat. It was like a meaningful clearing of the throat, a discreet reminder that fuel was running low; the tank not dry, not yet, but likely to be quite soon, in fifteen minutes say."
    (Frank Barnard, A Time for Heroes. Headline, 2012)
  • The average person can hold seven discrete bits of information in his or her head at a time.
     
  • "Millennials aren't real. . . . Macroscale demographic trends rarely govern most individuals’ life and work decisions. . . . For most practical purposes—hiring and managing, selling to, creating products for—your company may be better off recognizing more discrete and meaningful characteristics in workers than simply the year of their birth."
    (Farhad Manjoo, "Corporate America Chases the Mythical Millennial." The New York Times, May 25, 2016)
     

    Usage Notes

    • "The words discreet and discrete sound the same, and both derive from Latin discretus 'separate'; but in English they have quite different meanings. Discreet means 'careful to avoid being noticed or giving offence' (we made discreet inquiries). Discrete, on the other hand, means 'separate, distinct' (research tends to focus on discrete areas)."
      (Oxford Thesaurus of English, 3rd ed., edited by Maurice Waite. Oxford University Press, 2009)
    • "When used of people, discreet means 'careful, reliable, and not likely to gossip' (Can we rely on her to be discreet?); when used about actions, it means 'unlikely to attract attention' (We have made a few discreet enquiries). Discrete is a more technical word meaning 'separate' or 'individually distinct': The process can be broken down into a number of discrete stages."
      (Stephen Curtis and Martin Manser, The Penguin Writer's Manual. Penguin, 2002)

    Practice

    (a) Electricity is composed of _____ particles of equal size.

    (b) To avoid scandal and gossip, we'll have to be very _____.

    (c) "He has the ear of Cabinet ministers at any time he wants; he knows Whitehall as none of them can, and with a few _____ words he can achieve what might take others months of negotiation."
    (Anthony Sampson describing Norman Brook, quoted by Kevin Theakston in Leadership in Whitehall. Macmillan, 1999) 

    Answers to Practice Exercises

    (a) Electricity is composed of discrete particles.

    (b) To avoid scandal and gossip, we'll have to be very discreet.

    (c) "He has the ear of Cabinet ministers at any time he wants; he knows Whitehall as none of them can, and with a few discreet words he can achieve what might take others months of negotiation."
    (Anthony Sampson describing Norman Brook, quoted by Kevin Theakston in Leadership in Whitehall.

    Macmillan, 1999) 

     

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Commonly Confused Words: Discreet and Discrete." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2018, thoughtco.com/discreet-and-discrete-1689550. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, February 28). Commonly Confused Words: Discreet and Discrete. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/discreet-and-discrete-1689550 Nordquist, Richard. "Commonly Confused Words: Discreet and Discrete." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/discreet-and-discrete-1689550 (accessed May 26, 2018).