“Discreet” vs. “Discrete”: What’s the Difference?

Sound smarter by knowing when to use discreet vs. discrete. These handy tips will help you keep them straight!

Homonyms can be a challenge for even the most dedicated grammarians. They sound the same—and are sometimes spelled the same—but have different meanings. Stationary vs. stationery, elicit vs. illicit and discreet vs. discrete all fall under this umbrella.

But however tricky these words may be, it’s worth learning the difference. In professional and personal communications, proper spelling makes us look reliable and trustworthy. Misspellings, on the other hand, are the sort of grammar mistakes that make you look bad. Imagine your boss’s reaction if an official communication went out incorrectly, using loose instead of lose.

That’s why we’re zeroing in on one particularly confusing pair, explaining when to use discreet vs. discrete. Don’t worry: It’s easier than it sounds. And once you’ve mastered discreet vs. discrete, you can turn your attention to other must-know grammar knowledge. Determining the right word usage can be equally complex—flush out vs. flesh out, historic vs. historical, envy vs. jealousy and home in vs. hone in can also throw you for a loop. But step by step, you’ll be able to use all these correctly. Read on for help.

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What does discreet mean?

Let’s say you’re attending a lecture but have arrived a few minutes late. The speaker started right on time, so you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. As you enter the room, you handle the door and take a seat as quickly and noiselessly as possible. You are trying to be discreet and not call unwanted attention to yourself.

While the word can describe how noticeable someone is—you, in the above scenario—it can also apply to objects. Consider the tiny microphone clipped to an actor’s costume during a play. That’s also discreet.

But that’s not the only definition of this adjective. Merriam-Webster also defines discreet as “having or showing discernment or good judgment in conduct and especially in speech.” This definition of the word can apply to conduct in social situations. Someone might ask you to be discreet with a piece of information, for instance.

And finally, discreet may be used to describe things that are unpretentious or modest, like a discreet home.

Using discrete in any of those instances would be a grammar faux pas on par with mixing up lay vs. lie.

Examples of discreet in a sentence

  • I’m planning a surprise party for Joel. Be discreet when you speak with him so you don’t ruin the plan.
  • The medical device is small and discreet, so no one will notice you’re wearing it.
  • Despite her sizable income, her home features discreet and understated decor.

Be sure not to use discrete in any of those instances. These words are not synonyms, as you’ll learn below.

What does discrete mean?

When you’re going through old clothing, you might make several discrete piles as you decide what to get rid of. But be sure to keep these groupings discrete—an adjective defined by Merriam-Webster as “constituting a separate entity; individually distinct”—so that the “sell” clothes don’t end up in the “recycle” pile, or vice versa.

As you can see, though the two homonyms sound alike, their meanings aren’t similar at all. Once you understand the definition of discreet vs. discrete, you can strike them off the list of words you’re using wrong.

Examples of discrete in a sentence

  • The lifeguards divided the children into discrete groups: advanced swimmers, intermediates and beginners.
  • When you’re baking, keep your ingredients discrete so your measurements can be exact.
  • The ice cream at the parlor was kept in discrete tubs to keep flavors from mixing accidentally.

Let’s quickly recap this discreet vs. discrete lesson: The words have discrete (not discreet!) and distinct definitions. At first, their spellings can seem like one of the most confusing grammar rules of the English language. And they may indeed be everyday words everyone misspells. But with practice and some tips, you can set yourself apart by getting them right.

The origins of discreet vs. discrete

Discreet and discrete share the same Latin root: the word discretus, a form of the Latin verb that means “to separate” and “to discern.” Both words entered the English language in the 14th century. But the use with the definition closer to “discerning” or “private” was more common until the 16th century.

Spelling rules were more fluid at that time, so the word we now spell as discreet was spelled both ways. Choosing discreet vs. discrete wasn’t a huge issue back then (just in case this wasn’t tricky enough, right?).

In the 16th century, the word discrete, with its current meaning, rose in popularity. That’s when the grammar rules changed—and the spellings of discrete vs. discreet became distinct.

Tips for remembering discreet vs. discrete

Trying to determine the right definition of discreet vs. discrete? One way to remember which to use is to notice that with discrete, the e‘s are separated by the t. Likewise, discrete has the meaning of “set apart” and “individual.”

Another tip: Remember that just as separate ends in te, discrete also does. And some people suggest imagining that the two e‘s in discreet are huddled next to each other, sharing a secret—in other words, being discreet!

Bear in mind that these words also have adverb forms: discreetly vs. discretely, describing ways to do something. How should you tell someone that, for example, they have a bit of toilet paper stuck to their shoe? Discreetly! On the other hand, you can label the different parts of a song—chorus, verse and bridge—discretely.

With these tips in mind, choosing the right spelling of discreet vs. discrete is absolutely doable. You’ve got this! And now you’re free to turn your attention to something a bit less complex—grammar jokes, anyone?