“Discreet” vs. “Discrete”: What’s the Difference?
Even though they sound the same, discrete and discreet mean two different things. If you’ve been confused about the difference between these two words forever, you’re covered now:
"Discreet" means to do something in a secretive, low-profile or cautious way, while "discrete" means individually separate, distinct or unconnected.
“Discreet”: Definition and examples
Discreet with the double “e” is the word you’re likely to hear more often. A discreet person is someone who is cautious or reserved—the opposite of loud and obtrusive, especially when it comes to speech. The corresponding adverb is discreetly and the noun discretion.
Here are some examples of discreet in a sentence:
The attendees made a discreet exit so as not to disturb the speaker.
Let’s be discreet about our little rendezvous.
The aliens discreetly landed their craft on the bald spot over the hill.
“Discrete”: Definition and examples
Discrete is an adjective that Merriam-Webster defines as “constituting a separate entity.” You can usually substitute it with the word distinct. It’s less common in day-to-day language. You’re more likely to come across it in the fields of math or science, for example in describing data that can only take particular values (as opposed to continuous). The corresponding adverb form is discretely and the noun discreteness.
Here are some example of discrete in a sentence:
There are three discrete items, each with their own unique characteristics.
This bug was a discrete issue that did not affect other parameters.
“Our study of vibration thus far has been limited to discrete systems which have a finite number of degrees of freedom”—Ahmed A. Shabana, Vibration of Discrete and Continuous Systems.
What’s confusing about “discrete” and “discreet”?
The two words are homophones—words that sound exactly alike but are different in meaning. And they make a particularly troublesome pair of homophones, because not only do they sound alike, but they’re also close in spelling.
The reason for this is that both words stem from the original Latin source discretus, meaning “distinct” or “separated.” In English, discrete has since kept true to its original Latin root, but discreet diverged (unobtrusively, of course) around the 16th century, to be known as it is in language today.
“Discreet” or “discrete”: A little trick to remember the difference
If you have trouble distinguishing the two, you’re not alone. Here’s a little memory trick to help you out. The “t” in discrete separates or divides the two “e’s,” making them separate and distinct. The double “ee’s” in discreet, on the other hand, hide together in the middle of the word.
In a nutshell
The best way to tell the difference when you hear discreet and discrete out loud is by context. And now that you understand the difference, you’ll easily differentiate between these discrete adjectives, and can discreetly pass your knowledge to someone else!
Take a little practice quiz: “Discreet” vs. “Discrete”
Thankfully, my mother was _______in the way she handled my absences from class. (discrete/discreet)
The organization was made up of ________entities. (discrete/discreet)
“I will be ___________ in my investigation into the matter,” assured the detective. (discrete/discreet)
Quiz answers: 1) discreet 2) discrete 3) discreet
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Anat Sivan, UX Writer & Team Lead at Wix
A New Jersey native, mother of 3 and certified word nerd.