Word War: Discreet vs Discrete

When you’re trying to be careful about your actions or behavior or both, would describe yourself as discreet or discrete? This pair of homophones has driven writers and editors alike crazy as the confusion between them are normally observed in writing. So which one means “careful” and what does the other one mean then?

Discreet means “judicious in one’s conduct or speech, especially with regard to respecting privacy or maintaining silence about something of a delicate nature.” Or more generally, “prudent, unobtrusive.”

Here are some examples:

Some people prefer texting and using instant messages over calling because it’s more discreet as no one can overhear the conversations.

Someone called me during the meeting, so I tried to be discreet and left the room to answer the call.

A lot of gay men prefer to live a discreet lifestyle to avoid discrimination and stigma from society.

Discrete means something quite different: “apart or detached from others; separate, distinct, discontinuous.”

Here are some examples:

In their new collaborative song “Mean It,” Lauv and Paul Klein sound almost alike while their fans expected to hear two discrete voices.

“American Horror Story: Asylum” remains to be the only season of the series with a discrete theme rather than a recurring one.

The bank tagged my case as a discrete case of skimming instead of being part of the current modus operandi, so they did not refund my money.

In mathematics, discrete has several specialized senses, such as “defined only for an isolated set of points,” such as a discrete (noncontinuous) variable. The mathematical discrete can be understood as “finite” or “countable.”

Since the confusion between these words is only in spelling them, one way to remember the difference between the two is that the noun form of discreet is discretion—you’re showing discretion when you are being discreet. The noun form of discrete is discreteness.

 

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