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.
What Does “Discreet” Mean?
Discreet refers to something one does to avoid embarrassment or to keep something confidential. For example:
When I went to the clinic, the nurses were very discreet.
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.
What Does “Discrete” Mean?
When something is “discrete”, it is separate or distinct from other similar things. For example:
Wagner’s Ring Cycle is divided into four discrete parts, played in series.
“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).
Find this useful?
Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.
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
We hope this post has helped. For more common word choice confusions, check out our word choice series.