“Discrete” and “Discreet”–Two Discrete Words

Yesterday a friend asked for feedback on the resume she had just written. In her resume, she mentioned a job in which she had provided "discrete, confidential secretarial support."

But discrete means "separate, distinct." My friend wanted the word discreet, which means "prudent; showing prudence and self-restraint."

Here is an easy way to choose the correct homonym:

When the e's are separate, the word means "separate." When the e's are together, the subject described "has it together," which is a slang way of saying the subject is prudent.

Test yourself by filling in these blanks with the correct form, discrete or discreet:

1. There are two ___________ steps in the process.

2. Please be ____________ when you discuss Carl's situation.

3. He was very __________ when he spoke about his previous employer. 

4. Our department is a ____________ unit in the editorial division.

Were the correct answers obvious? Mine are (1) ete, (2) eet, (3) eet, (4) ete.

If you are sighing and wondering why you were not aware of the two discrete/discreet forms, it's time to buy or borrow a reference book. Be sure you are not mistaking other word pairs such as complement/compliment, principal/principle (many people use principle incorrectly), and peak/peek/pique. (You pique someone's interest.)

For quick instruction, I recommend my 60 Quick Word Fixes. I also like Jan Venolia's The Right Word: How to Say What You Really Mean.

Which word pairs have you mastered in the past few years? Which do you wish others understood? Please share your secrets.  

Syntax Training


  1. I wonder, Lynn, if you’ve ever heard this gem, oft repeated by a former boss. Sometimes in trying to make a point, if it seemed that she was getting nowhere she would lose patience and say, in frustration, “Well, it’s a mute point now!” Of course, she meant “a MOOT point.” I always struggled (and laughed) trying to imagine a scenario in which a point might truly be “mute.”

  2. One of my pet peeves is “insure”/”ensure.” You insure something against loss or failure, but you ensure that it won’t fail in the first place (ensure those straps are secure so your boat doesn’t roll off the trailer, especially since you are not insured for that type of loss).

  3. the Scottish/Irish word Carnaptious , was originally proper English too, but fell into disuse because of the Scottish /Irish sharp AHHH , now proper english has thrown out the word carnaptious in favour of Cantankerous, but Carnaptious is more fitting to people who start their day with a cup of vinegar, instead of a tea spoonful of honey


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