Keeping ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’ discreetly discrete

August 29, 2011

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.

Affect and effect

September 23, 2008

These words are often confused because of their similar pronunciation, because of a slight overlap in meaning, because both words act as verbs and nouns, and for reasons unknown.

Affect is usually a verb, commonly meaning to have an effect on something. This effect can be vague or indirect (Pollution affects everyone), or more immediate and emotional (The documentary affected us strongly). It can also mean to pretend or simulate (For visitors she affected an air of immense job satisfaction), and to wear or do something in an attempt to win admiration (He began to affect a silk cravat and an upper-class accent).

Affect as a noun is a technical term in psychology that basically means emotion. It is pronounced with a stress on the first syllable.

Effect is usually a noun meaning result, influence or consequence (The effects of video gaming on brain function). It can also mean a general impression (The cobwebs added to the spooky effect). It can mean a force or phenomenon in science or economics (Casimir effect, Doppler effect and so on). It can mean something being in force or in operation (The policy will come into effect next year; This medicine takes effect quickly). In the theatrical arts it can mean the smoke and mirrors part of production (inventive special effects), and in the plural it can mean one’s possessions or movable goods, generally in a formal context (Before evacuation they were instructed to gather their personal effects).

Effect as a verb has limited application, but you are likely to come across it occasionally. It means to bring about or to cause to happen, and it is often paired with change (The new board planned to effect significant changes in how the organisation operated). This usage is quite often erroneously encroached upon by affect, so it’s one to watch out for.

Most of these usages are quite familiar, though dictionaries differ over which to include and where definitions overlap. Some reference books include more obscure meanings or idiomatic definitions. The important distinction for most people to remember is that if A affects B, A has an effect on B. This local newspaper got it wrong:

Stan Carey - affect effect

And again:

And again:

galway independent - editorial - effect affect confusion

The Guardian:

The BBC:


A book on the Alexander Technique, by Sarah Barker:

Generation X by Douglas Coupland:

generation x - affected effected

Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore et al.: