Commonly Confused Words: Discreet and Discrete

Commonly Confused Words

Students discreetly passing notes
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Though “discreet” and “discrete” look and sound similar, the minor difference in spelling represents a major difference in definition. Both stem from the Latin word “discretus,” meaning “to separate,” but one refers to being cautious, while the other refers to something that is individual and separate.   

How to Use Discreet

An adjective, “discreet” means self-restrained, prudent, cautious, or tactful, and often is used in reference to speech. It is something that is done under the radar, and is unlikely to get attention or cause offense. It can be used to describe someone who is private and cautious, or who understands the consequence of sharing certain or private information. We might ask if someone is discreet, meaning we can trust them to not share information we would prefer to keep private. The noun forms are “discretion” and “discreetness.”

How to Use Discrete

Also an adjective, “discrete” means individual, detached, or separate. It is often used less than “discreet,” and is generally more technical. The noun form is “discreteness.” 

Examples

  • Invisible hearing aids are becoming more popular among those who want to be discreet about their hearing loss: In this sentence, “discreet” is used to indicate that those who are losing their hearing want to keep this information private, choosing options that are subtle and unobtrusive.
  • The average person can hold seven discrete bits of information in his or her head at a time: Here, “discrete” indicates that a person can remember seven different pieces of information, such as the seven digits that make up a phone number. 
  • When the company made an effort to hire younger workers, many other applicants called this ageism, arguing they should focus on discrete variables apart from age: In this example, “discrete” means variables that are separate from age, as job applicants argue that birth date should not trump other qualities. 
  • To subtly let Emilio know that his time was running out during his speech, Clara discreetly cleared her throat: In this example, Clara is clearing her throat in a way that is tactful and understated, letting Emilio know to finish his speech without alerting the rest of the audience. 
  • When the man was talking loudly on his phone while ordering his coffee, the barista and I exchanged discrete glances of irritation: In this sentence, “discrete” shows how the glances were relatively unnoticeable to the man in question, able to communicate annoyance without letting him know. 
  • To avoid anyone figuring out he was Batman, Bruce Wayne had to be very discreet about his activities: In this example, Bruce has to make sure that his connection to Batman is not noticeable and that any behavior related to his secret superhero identity is under-the-radar.
  • Electricity is composed of discrete particles of equal size: This sentence uses “discrete” to indicate that the particles composing electricity are distinct and separate, even if they are the same size. 
  • The clients appreciated Sharon’s discretion, trusting her with their more sensitive information: Sharon’s ability to be prudent and reserved makes her more valued to clients, who know that she will keep their information private. 

How to Remember the Difference

It’s no surprise that the two homonyms are the subject of so much confusion: they both emerged in the 14th century, but “discrete” fell out of common usage for about 200 years—though its spelling didn't. Those writing “discreet” spelled it in a variety of ways, including “discrete,” “discreet,” “dyscrete,” and “discreete.” The difference between the two spellings only became popularized in the 16th century, when both ways of spelling and meanings became more defined. 

Remember the difference by thinking of the placement of the “e”s in both. Unlike in discreet, in discrete, they are separate, and “discrete” means separate or detached.