How To Be Discreet In Discrete Quantities

How To Be Discreet In Discrete Quantities
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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.


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