Word Choice: Discrete vs. Discreet
  • 2-minute read
  • 20th June 2016

Word Choice: Discrete vs. Discreet

You know those times when your friend has a massive zit on their face but you don’t say anything because you don’t want to embarrass them? That’s called “being discreet.”

Or should that be “discrete”? No, it shouldn’t. But many people confuse these terms due to the fact that they sound identical when spoken. It’s therefore worth taking a minute to run through what these words mean and how to use them correctly in your work.

Discreet (Careful or Prudent)

As suggested above, the correct term to use when describing something which has been done to avoid embarrassment, or to keep something confidential, is “discreet”:

When I went to the clinic, the nurses were very discreet.

Until you left. Then they laughed about your genitals. [Photo: OnCall team/Vlastimil]
Until you left. Then they laughed about your genitals. [Photo: OnCall team/Vlastimil]
It can also be used to describe something designed to be subtle, or not attract attention:

The pattern on the lapels is complemented by discreet stitching on the collar.

“Discreet” is related to the quality of “discretion”, although “discretion” can also mean “freedom to make decisions” and “discreet” is not used in this sense.

Discrete (Separate or Distinct)

When something is “discrete”, it is separate or distinct from other similar things:

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Wagner’s Ring Cycle is divided into four discrete parts, played in series.

The valkyries were anything but “discreet.”

“Discrete” also has some specific, technical meanings, though these tend to be related to the idea of being “distinct” or “separate.” Discrete mathematics, for instance, is a field of math that focuses on discontinuous structures (e.g., integers, graphs and logical statements).

Discreet or Discrete?

As you can see, these terms have very distinct meanings (you might even say that they’re “discrete”). As such, you should take care to use them correctly in your work.

When describing a situation in which someone is being secretive or careful not to cause offense, the correct term is “discreet” (e.g., “You can tell me your secret. I’m very discreet.”)

When you’re describing something which is separate from other similar things, the term to use is “discrete” (e.g., “Any machine can be broken down into its discrete components.”) Remember:

Discreet = Careful/subtle

Discrete = Distinct/separate

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