Grammar

Discreet or Discrete? Swapping 2 Letters Makes a Difference!

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If you’re trying to do things without attracting a lot of attention, are you trying to be discreet or discrete? Many don’t seem to know.

Do you mean discreet or discrete? I would imagine most people don’t realize both words even exist, much less know the difference between them.

I’ve seen dating sites in which members criticize those already in relationships but looking for dates “on the side.” Some make reference to the fact that people choose the wrong word with the message, “discreet ? discrete.” That means, simply, the two words don’t mean the same thing. But for those who are apparently trying to be sneaky about their romantic interactions, which one do they mean?

For that matter, what does the wrong choice actually mean?

Discreet

The word discreet entered the English language in the 14th century. It traces its roots all the way back to Latin, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us. It means “morally discerning, prudent, circumspect, wise or judicious in avoiding mistakes.”

It’s this word, as you probably guessed, that people mean when they want to convey keeping something quiet.

Consider this headline from a sponsored article on The NY Post: “This discreet and easy-to-install indoor camera is now 20% off.” Why would you want a discreet security camera? You don’t want anyone who might be up to no good to know that they’re being watched. That gives you the advantage to catch them redhanded.

If you’re the type who’d get on a dating app despite having a significant other, you might one day find yourself on such a camera.

But not all sponsored posts get it right. Since they’re generally written by the sponsor and not the editors of the publication, spelling errors might be more common.

Here’s an example from BoingBoing about a vaping device. Its designers say it would avoid drawing a lot of attention to its user. Its headline, unfortunately, reads, “This mini vape is the perfect discrete companion for your pocket.”

Clearly, in that case, they meant discreet.

Discrete

When you swap the last two letters of discreet, the word keeps its pronunciation, but changes its meaning. The meaning of discrete is “constituting a separate entityindividually distinct,” Merriam-Webster tells us.

You can struggle to find clear examples of discrete used in everyday news. I found an article on growth in the discrete Silicon Carbide power device market. But it’s hard to work a topic like that into conversation.

The website WordsInASentence.com, fortunately, came to the rescue with these examples:

  • Brown and white rice are two discrete varieties. 
  • She appeared to be wearing a dress, but her shirt and skirt were actually two discrete articles of clothing.

Though the word is not wrong in either of those uses, I would have picked something else. In the first sentence, I might have used different. In the second, I would probably have selected distinct or separate.

They’re all, of course, synonyms for discrete. But I think since they’re much more familiar, you’re less likely to confuse your audience that way.

Let’s face it, our goal as communicators should always be to cause as little confusion as possible.


You now know the difference between discreet and discrete. I’ll refrain from making any moral judgments on those who like to be discreet about things that could be considered indiscretions.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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