Do you know the difference in meaning between ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’? If not, you’re hardly alone — but don’t panic, we’re here to help.
Whispering picture from Shutterstock
If you tell someone a secret and ask them not to spread it around, you’re hoping they will be ‘discreet’. The Macquarie provides the following definition for this useful adjective:
wise or judicious in avoiding mistakes or faults; prudent; circumspect; cautious; not rash; not given to careless talk; restrained
‘Discrete’, while also an adjective, refers to how something is divided up into parts:
detached from others; separate; distinct; consisting of or characterised by distinct or individual parts; discontinuous
As such, you can’t ask a person to be ‘discrete’. I suspect one source of the confusion is that the noun form of ‘discreet’, ‘discretion’, doesn’t echo the spelling.
A simple rule of thumb? Remember the phrase ‘It’s not discreet if it’s in a tweet’ — the double-Es go together.
The other rule of thumb? If you can’t remember which spelling is correct, choose a different word altogether (perhaps ‘circumspect’ for ‘discreet’, and ‘distinct’ for ‘discrete’). Accuracy matters.
Lifehacker’s Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.