Keeping ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’ discreetly discrete

Wordnik’s recent collection of commonly confused words reminded me that it’s been a while since I wrote a post of this sort.* Time for another.

Discreet and discrete are often mixed up. It’s easily done: not only are they homophones with near-identical spelling, they’re also doublets, meaning they diverged from the same original word. In modern English, their spellings and meanings are distinct. Below are mnemonics to help you remember which adjective is which.

Discreet is probably the more familiar word, and is usually used to refer to people, especially their speech, appearance, or behaviour. It means unobtrusive, circumspect and prudent, careful not to attract attention or cause embarrassment, able to keep a secret. Discretion is the noun form. You could think of the adjacent e’s in discreet discreetly sharing a secret: they couldn’t do this with a t in the way.

She promised to be discreet with any sensitive information.
As the meeting began, he yawned discreetly.

Discrete generally means separate, non-continuous, individually distinct; it also has technical usages relating to possible parts or values. Discreteness is the related noun. To remember this spelling, think of the t separating the e’s and keeping them distinct from one another.

A sentence is composed of discrete words.
We divided the work into discrete sections.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has more about the words’ overlapping histories, and shows that they are quite often misspelled even in reputable publications – unless these instances indicate that the words’ spellings are gradually becoming interchangeable again.

But even if that were the case – I’m sceptical – it doesn’t get you off the hook. Careful readers will notice what is, in current usage, a mistake, and may judge your writing accordingly. If you have trouble distinguishing discreet from discrete, use the mnemonics above; or if you have a different trick, do let me know in a comment.
 
 
* If you browse my spelling tag, you’ll find (among other things) posts about its and it’s, minuscule, ad nauseam, climatic and climactic, stationary and stationery, peddle and pedal, principal and principle, affect and effect, forego and forgo.

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10 Responses to Keeping ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’ discreetly discrete

  1. joy says:

    Oh, thank you, how useful! I’m not sure I ever quite realized that they weren’t both spelled “discrete.”

  2. Had it not been for having to study statistics during my student days I may not have known the difference

  3. Stan says:

    Joy: Glad to be of service!

    Jams: With confusing pairs, I find that knowing one very well is a good way to learn both.

  4. Mark Allen says:

    I love the relationship between the e’s, Stan. My mnemonic for “discrete” is geographical. “Discrete” contains “crete,” which is a Greek island. The island of Crete is a discrete part of Greece.

  5. Stan says:

    That’s a marvellous mnemonic, Mark. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. [...] MacMillan Dictionary blog wrapped up Gender English month with a guest post from Aneta Naumoska who questioned the creation of completely gender-free English. Stan Carey discussed the once scandalous word bloody, and on his own blog told us the difference between discreet and discrete. [...]

  7. Harry Lake says:

    For as long as I can remember anything linguistic, I have found it easy to remember that discrete is the opposite of concrete. Indeed, contrary to Stan’s reference to homophones, I also learnt that the two words discreet and discrete are pronounced differently in that discrete, like its more-or-less antonym concrete, is stressed on the first syllable. But that was years ago and there is no doubt that that difference has now almost disappeared.

    • Stan says:

      Harry: I was never aware of discrete being pronounced with stress on the first syllable. Most dictionaries today (at least the few that I checked) give both words as /dɪˈskriːt/, though Collins breaks discrete slightly differently, as /dɪsˈkriːt/.

      • Harry Lake says:

        Stan: I was introduced to Chambers at a young age in about 1959 when my elder brother told me about its definition of éclair (‘a cake, long in shape but short in duration, filled with’ etc.). The stress difference Chambers gave for discreet/discrete in the 1959 edition is still there in the 1984 edition, but a decade later no more. Could it be that it survived longer north of the border? Longman’s pronunciation dictionary gives two pronunciations for discrete, the secondary one having a secondary stress on the first syllable. Otherwise, of course, you are right: Collins and NODE/ODE have been united ever since their first editions. However, my most recent but not very recent (2008) edition of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary again offers two forms.

        I hadn’t noticed the different renderings in Collins (these aren’t words I look up often!), but perhaps breaking the word after the s can be seen as reflecting the con-crete/dis-crete dichotomy.

      • Stan says:

        I’d say it’s quite possible that an old pronunciation persisted as a variant north of the border, as you suggest, Harry. If I see this confirmed anywhere, I’ll let you know here.

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