Discrete vs Discreet
Updated 14 September, 2022 – Let’s have a look at the commonly confused discrete vs discreet. 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.
Here are some examples from inspiring English sources:
She spent part of last year having very discreet conversations with the treasury as she sought to persuade George Osborne to commit serious money to building the artistic headquarters of his northern powerhouse plan. – The Guardian
She also tries to break down problems into discrete units, observing and testing each solution separately before moving on to the next, as a good scientist would. – The Economists
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 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.