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'Discreet' vs. 'Discrete'

It helps to have a memory trick to remember the difference between "discreet" and "discrete."

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

Think of the Greek island Crete to remember how to spell "discrete."

English has a lot of homophones, words that sound the same but are spelled differently, and "discreet" and "discrete" are just such a troublesome pair.

"Discreet" means “tactful” or “cautious,” as in "I want to talk to you about changing jobs to something in your department, but we need to be discreet." 

"Discrete" means “separate,” “distinct,” or “unconnected,” as in "We detected three discrete signals with the radio telescope."

A quick news search will demonstrate how shockingly often people confuse the spellings of these words. Don't be a writer or editor who makes this mistake! 

Unfortunately, "discreet" and "discrete" have the same Latin origin, so that won't help us remember the difference, and according to Etymonline, the two spellings were used pretty much interchangeably until after the year 1600; so you could cop out and say you embrace a Renaissance method of spelling, but I don't recommend it.

The way I remember the difference is to associate the D-I-S-C-R-E-T-E spelling, the one that means "separate," "distinct," or "unconnected," with the Greek island of Crete, which is spelled the same way — and because it is an island, it is also separate, distinct, and unconnected.

More examples of 'discreet' and 'discrete'

'Discreet'

She discreetly gave her sorority sister the secret handshake.

The two candidates had a discreet meeting to work out their problems.

Angered by the display, she asked if he could be more discreet.

'Discrete'

There were two discrete choices.

Five discrete business units contributed to the increase in profits.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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