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“Discrete” and “Discreet”–Two Discrete Words

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.

Examples

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

Quiz

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.

Lynn
Syntax Training

We have a ton of articles on commonly confused words in our “similar words” section. Here is one – Chose vs. Choose. 

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

8 comments on ““Discrete” and “Discreet”–Two Discrete Words”

  • 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.”

  • Daphne, thanks for the wonderful example!

    Andrea, that’s interesting. I had thought it a typo when people wrote “preform.” I guess it was more than that. I am glad you set your classmate straight.

    Lynn

  • 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).

  • 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

    Jimbo

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