Discreet vs. Discrete: What’s the Difference?

It’s easy to mix up these two words in English writing. They are a set of homophones, which means both discreet and discrete are pronounced in the same way. This, of course, only adds to the confusion between them, but once you know how to tell them a part, they are quite easy to handle.

What is the Difference Between Discreet and Discrete?

Both discreet and discrete come from the same Latin word discretus, meaning “separated, distinct.” Although these two words share the same origins, they have very different meanings in modern usage.

In this post, I want to go over the definitions of both words, illustrate their proper use within a sentence, and give a few tricks to keep track of them in the future. After reading this post, you shouldn’t ever mix up discreet vs. discrete again.

When to Use Discreet

discreet or discrete grammar and meaningWhat does discreet mean?

Discreet is an adjective and is defined as careful and circumspect in one’s actions or speech, especially to avoid offense or gain an advantage; done, situated so as to attract little notice.

  • We asked a few discreet questions, not arousing anyone’s suspicions.
  • The police followed the burglar at a discreet distance.
  • During the speech, I made a discreet exit out of the back door.

A good way to think about the word discreet is that things that are done discreetly are not to arouse suspicion. They are done inconspicuously and are concerned about secrecy or being diplomatic.

When to Use Discrete

discrete meaning and how to use

What does discrete mean?

Discrete is also an adjective and is defined as constituting a separate thing; consisting of unconnected distinct parts.

  • The pizza came as eight discrete slices.
  • Computers treat time as discrete moments rather than a continuous flow.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope can see discrete starts within other galaxies.

As you can see, discrete has a very different definition than does discreet. Discrete deals with separate, individual, and distinct items, while discreet deals with things that are reserved or not arousing of suspicion.

Discrete is especially relevant to mathematics. You may have heard of a discrete variable. This is a variable that is finite and countable, not continuous. Say, for instance, you flip a coin and count the number of times it lands “heads up.” This value can be any integer between 0 and infinity, but it cannot be any number between these two values. The coin could not have landed on head 3.5 times, for example; it must, therefore, be a discrete variable that is finite, not continuous.

Remember the Difference

You may be wondering, “Well, that’s great, but how am I going to remember this?”

A good trick to keep these two words a part from one another rests in the last letter of each word.

Discreet has to do with being quiet and not drawing undue attention to one’s self. Both discreet and quiet end in the letter “T.”

Discrete has to do with separate, individual items. Both discrete and separate end in the letter “E.”

If you can remember this trick, you’ll be set.

Summary

Despite the fact that discrete vs. discreet share the same origins, they have completely different meanings.

Discreet is an adjective and means to be careful or circumspect in one’s actions.

Discrete is also an adjective and means separate or individual items or things.