Discreet vs. discrete?

The adjectives discreet and discrete share identical pronunciations and origins, but they have different definitions. “Discreet” describes speech or behavior that is cautious or of ‘good judgment.’ “Discrete” describes something as ‘separate and distinct.’

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What is the difference between discreet and discrete?

Many English writers mistakenly use the term discreet for discrete, but “discrete” is the more common and correct word to use. According to Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU), the adjective discreet lost popularity after 1950, allowing “discrete” to outnumber “discreet” by a 4-1 margin for everyday use (“Discrete; discreet” 287). 

This could mean that the common understanding of “discrete” is grossly misinterpreted or that modern English speakers have opted for synonyms in lieu of “discreet,” itself. Whichever the cause, it’s apparent that we have some explaining to do:

  • Discrete definition: a ‘separateness’ and ‘distinction’ of entities. 
  • Discreet definition: a ‘careful’ and ‘circumspect’ behavior. 

In other words, we can say the terms have discrete definitions, but their different meanings are often “discreet.” 

Discreet vs. discrete: origins of confusion

The primary reason English speakers grapple with discreet vs. discrete is that they are homonyms: words that share similar pronunciations, spellings, or origins, but have separate definitions. Most homophones have distinct differences, such as “led vs. lead” or “principal vs. principle,” but you won’t find any mercy with this tricky duo. 

The words discreet and discrete have the exact same pronunciations and origins. As noted by The American Heritage Dictionary, discrete and discreet entered the English Language from Latin discrētus, the past participle of discernere (‘to separate’ or ‘discern’). However, the word “discreet” entered Middle English from Old French discret, meaning the two words developed independently of one another.  

Lexico attempts to make sense of these differences by pointing out how “discreet” is indirectly influenced by Late Latin discretio (‘discernment’), a term that later gave way to the noun “discretion:”

“The quality of behaving or speaking in such a way as to avoid causing offense or revealing confidential information.” 

In contrast, the word discrete is more related to the word “discern,” which also shares the Latin root of discernere. What makes the terms “discrete” is that the verb “discern” means “to perceive,” “detect,” or “recognize,” which is nearly the opposite meaning of “discreet” itself (see definition below). 

So, there you have it: the words discreet and discrete are both adjectives that share Latin roots and pronunciations, but with different word evolutions and meanings. 

What does discreet mean?

The word discreet is an adjective that describes someone as showing prudence, self-restraint, or “good judgment” regarding speech and behavior. According to The New Oxford American Dictionary, the adjective especially applies to conduct that ‘avoids causing offense’ or ‘gains an advantage’ (“Discreet” 496). 

“A discreet person is uninterested in seeking negative attention.”
“Online users should be discreet about sharing personal information.” 
“Someone who purchases flashy products is not discreet about their wealth.”

Outside of displaying modesty or discernment, English speakers use the adjective “discreet” to describe how something is ‘unnoticeable’ or “intentionally unobtrusive” (“Discreet 496”). ‘

“The WordPress template provides a discreet share button near the author’s byline.”
“If you arrive past midnight, please be discreet about entering the house.”
“The mother was discreet in planning her daughter’s surprise party.”

Synonyms

Adj. [1]: Cautious, circumspect, chary, discerning, foresighted, guarded, intelligent, judgmatic, judicious, prudent, sensible, wise. 

Adj. [2]: Concealed, hidden, inconspicuous, impalpable, imperceptible, invisible, obscure, unnoticeable, unobtrusive, unseen.

Antonyms

Adj. [1]: Careless, foolish, heedless, imprudent, incautious, indiscreet, injudicious, rash, shortsighted, unwise.

Adj. [2]: Arresting, eye-catching, flashy, loud, noisy, showy, striking.

What does discrete mean?

The word discrete is an adjective that describes something that is ‘individually separate and distinct, ‘in separate parts,’ or ‘unconnected’ and ‘noncontinuous’ (“Discrete” 496). For example, 

“Some celebrities live discrete, double lives.” 
“The tragedies are not coincidental; they are, unfortunately, discrete.”
“WordPress and Shopify are discrete content platforms.”
“The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is not entirely discrete from the United States government.” 

Synonyms

Detached, disconnected, free, independent, individual, separate, single, unattached, unconnected.

Antonyms

Adjoining, attached, connected, joined, linked.

Derivatives of discreet and discrete

Several other word forms use the meaning and spelling of discreet, such as: 

  • Discreeter (adj.): More discreet. 
  • Discreetest (adj.): Most discreet. 
  • Discreetly (adv.): In a discreet manner. 
  • Discreetness (n.): The state of being discreet. 

We found the word discrete used similarly for terms like: 

  • Discretely (adv.): In a disconnected manner. 
  • Discreteness (n.): The state of being discrete. 
  • Discretize (v.): To present or approximate with a discrete quantity (in mathematics). 

How to use discreet vs. discrete in a sentence?

Using discreet and discrete in a sentence is easy once you have their definitions down. Why? Because they are adjectives! 

As explained by the Cambridge Dictionary, an adjective is simply a word that describes a noun or pronoun. Therefore, we use words like “discreet” and “discrete” to describe: 

  • People, places, or things (e.g., Denzel Washington, Washington D.C., an action movie, etc.). 
  • I, you, he, she, they, we, it, me, our, your, them, etc. 

Just don’t forget the most important writing tip of all: 

  • Use “discreet” to describe a characteristic or manner as ‘careful’ and ‘circumspect.’
  • Use “discrete” to describe something as ‘separate’ and ‘distinct’ from something else.

Example sentences for “discreet

“The café got busier and people looked at her, although in a discreet, New York sort of way.” –– The New Yorker
“And there’s the dignity of a discreet person whose intimate life has occasionally been slung into public domain…” –– The New York Times
“After years of helping celebrities, the discreet attorney leads Simpson defense team.” –– Los Angeles Times
“… some sellers to consider a more discreet sales strategy usually reserved for public figures or the very wealthy: the private listing.” –– The Boston Globe

Example sentences for “discrete

“… symptomatic infection or not is a discrete variable that we have objective assays to measure.” –– Science Magazine
“The notion of dividing words into discrete parts of speech is generally credited to the ancient Greek grammarian Dionysius Thrax.” –– The New York Times Magazine
“We called these territories ‘salmon ecoregions’ and identified 66 discrete units along the Pacific and Arctic oceans.” –– The Seattle Times
“The ball piercing the basket is both a discrete event and a continuous waterfall of motion that, for active players, is constant throughout their careers.” –– The New Yorker

How to remember the difference between discreet and discrete ?

The easiest way to memorize the differences between homonyms is through mnemonics. To distinguish the meanings of discreet vs. discrete, try associating the ‘separateness’ of “discrete” with the two separate e’s. 

Discrete = separateness = “-ete” = t separates two e’s

Test Yourself!

Discreet and discrete are commonly confused words that require practice for perfection. Test how much you’ve learned about their “discrete” uses with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: the words “discreet” and “discrete” derive from the Latin word discretus
    a. True
    b. False
  2. “Discrete” and “discreet” are examples of ______________. 
    a. Homonyms
    b. Adjectives
    c. Homophones
    d. A and B
  3. The word ______________ is the noun form of “discreet.”
    a. Discreetly 
    b. Discreeter
    c. Discreetness
    d. Discreetest 
  4. The word “discrete” is closely related to which term?
    a. Discernment 
    b. Discretion
    c. Discretionary
    d. Discern 
  5. The math verb “discretize” derives from ______________.
    a. Discreet
    b. Discrete

Answers

  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. B

Sources

  1. Adjective.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  2. Beller, T. “The Shot That Stopped Basketball.” The New Yorker, 27 Apr 2019. 
  3. Cognito.” The New Yorker, 19 May 2003. 
  4. Discrete.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  5. Discrete.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  6. Discreet.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  7. Discreet.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  8. Discreet.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  9. “Discreet.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 496. 
  10. Discern.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  11. Discern.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  12. Discretion.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  13. Garner, B. “Discrete; discreet.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 287. 
  14. Gorey, H. “Pandemic has more sellers opting for private listings.” The Boston Globe, 3 May 2020. 
  15. Lowe, D. “Vaccine Data From Novavax.” Science Magazine, 6 Aug 2020. 
  16. Raymond, S. “Noteworthy—but flawed—examinations of salmon.” The Seattle Times, 26 Aug 2005. 
  17. Sayre, N. “Room at the Top on the Left.” The New York Times, 21 May 1978. 
  18. Yagoda, B. “Parts of Speech.” The New York Times Magazine, 9 July 2006.