The Difference Between “Discreet” and “Discrete”

By Maeve Maddox

discreet adj. Showing discernment or judgement in the guidance of one’s own speech and action; judicious, prudent, circumspect, cautious; often esp. that can be silent when speech would be inconvenient.    

discrete adj. Separate, detached from others, individually distinct. Opposed to continuous.

Both discreet and discrete derive from the same Latin word discretus, “separated, distinct.” Old French discret meant “discreet, sensible, intelligent, wise.” In the 17th century, the spelling discreet became attached to the sense of “careful” or “prudent.” The spelling discrete, used in such disciplines as philosophy, medicine, and music, retained the original Latin meaning of “separated.”

Examples of the incorrect uses of discreet and discrete:

… but if this brief and discrete affair ever really happened it was never in the public eye…

I just arrived in Dubai and was wondering if anyone knows of a discrete internet cafe, ideally with private rooms…

I’ve always thought about breaking down ICs back to their discreet components

Examples of correct uses of discreet and discrete:

Sometimes people need to be discreet when it comes to the contacts in their iPhones.

Having a discreet affair isn’t easy.

…designed to help a nursing mother have a bit more privacy and to be able to nurse discreetly…

The Times claims these scores can validly peg the discrete effect of each teacher on their students’ growth.

A statistical distribution whose variables can take on only discrete values…

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12 Responses to “The Difference Between “Discreet” and “Discrete””

  • –Deb

    I’ve always appreciated that discreet/discrete have their own spelling memory aids built right in. “Discreet,” being subtle and private, keeps both its Es tucked inside. “Discrete,” which likes things separate, keeps them apart with the T.

  • Precise Edit

    Deb: That’s a pretty good trick!

    Google search for “Descrete affair” returned 288K results. Could a person who uses this spelling be trusted to have a descreet affair? Or does a person in a descrete affair only have one at a time?

  • –Deb

    I don’t trust anybody that careless with their spelling!

  • Jon

    Keeping your affairs discrete would surely help to keep them discreet?

    And vice versa, for that matter. If you are not discreet about your affairs, you can hardly hope to keep the various parties discrete.

    (Now, thanks to the constant repetition of those two words over and over, neither spelling looks correct to me. Is it just me that gets temporarily saturated with particular words to the point where they just look nonsensical?)

  • Kathryn

    Jon–nope. Happens to me, too, and I suspect to most of us. Worst is when the actual correct spelling just looks totally improbable. . .

  • Christina Crowe

    That’s a great idea, Deb! It’s easy to remember as well.

    Terrific post. Love the examples!

  • Deborah H

    @Deb—splendid tip!

  • Jack Griffin

    Maeve, where did you find that definition of discreet?? “Judgment” is misspelled!

  • Nina

    Wow! Thanks for clearing this one up. I hope there’s a better way to set examples of discreet and discrete because I was kind of confused at first. But thanks a lot! More power to you.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hello:
    The most useful cases of the word “discrete” come in electronics engineering and computer engineering. Naturally, there needs to be discrete mathematics to support these uses, too.
    D.A.W.

  • Matt

    Actually Jack, judgment or judgement is not misspelled. Although the spelling without the middle e is typically “correct” they are both acceptable and in the dictionary. However, the definitions generally change slightly.

  • Scrynt

    Actually, ‘Dale’, just because a person or persons apparently started to misspell “judgment” and it eventually became familiar with enough of – and/or the “right” – people does not mean that “judgement” has officially overridden the initial spelling. In fact, the spell-checker used in this comments area highlighted my (mis)spelling(s) of “judgement”… twice.

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