Discreet or discrete?

30 Jun

I’ve noticed this particular pair getting mixed up a lot recently.  In a book I was reading on butterflies (a good book, well researched and well copyedited apart from this one point), in blog posts, in things I’ve been editing … all over the place.  I try not to get too annoyed by mistakes, especially common ones, but this one has been jumping out at me, so it’s obviously asking to be written about!

Something that’s discreet is careful and prudent.  It fades into the shadows and doesn’t make a show of itself; it doesn’t offend.

Something that’s discrete is something that’s separate and distinct.  It has specific uses in maths and science, and, although it is seen in everyday speech and writing, it might be better to just go ahead and use “distinct” instead.

Some examples: “She wore a discreet grey hat with a small feather.” “We can have an affair, but we’ll have to be discreet about it so no one finds out.” The  examination has several discrete, non-overlapping sections, all of which must be passed.”

Really, if you feel that you want to use this word, you probably want to use “discreet”.

For more troublesome pairs, choose the phrase in the category cloud to the right, or click here.


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3 responses to “Discreet or discrete?

  1. lindaproofreads

    July 10, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Meh. I have this word in a sentence and neither meaning really fits. Who knows what the student actually means?!


    • Liz at Libro

      July 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      Oh dear! I’d ask them and point them to this post!


      • lindaproofreads

        July 10, 2012 at 5:02 pm

        I’ve inserted a comment, asking which they mean. To be honest, it’s someone who seems to use a lot of “academic” words without really understanding their meaning so I don’t think either definition is correct.



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