Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Discreet and discrete

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Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...
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Discreet means to be tactful and careful in what you say, and to keep confidences. It also means to be unobtrusive. For example:

You can tell her your secret as she is always discreet.

I didn’t see the discreetly positioned microphone.

This example, from the UK newspaper, the Guardian (online), shows ‘discreet’ being used incorrectly:

This is a must-read post … that breaks down the Senate healthcare timetable into six discreet elements.

That should, of course, be ‘discrete’. See below:

Discrete means something that is separate or distinct from other things. For example:

The pigs were kept in a discrete area away from the other animals.

I will study philosophy as a discrete topic.

This example from the UK newspaper, The Independent, shows ‘discrete’ being used incorrectly:

He was sorry that he couldn’t be more specific than that, but one has to be discrete about such things.

That should, of course, be ‘discreet’.

This may help you remember the difference…

In the word ‘discrete’ the two ‘e’s are separated by a ‘t’, which suggests the meaning of the word: ‘something that is separate’.

More commonly confused words

Spelling tips and tricks


4 Responses

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  1. Hello Deborah,

    I absolutely love reading your blog and receiving your updates via an RSS feed on my homepage. (Yes, you rate a spot!) They are short enough to be read quickly and I am always learning. Much appreciation! ~ Rosemary


    12/03/2010 at 5:46 pm

    • Hello, Rosemary — I do value your kind words and I’m very glad you find the blog useful. You’re always welcome here.


      12/03/2010 at 5:51 pm

  2. My mnemonic aid is to think of “Crete” — a separate island. (Works for me and helps me get away for a sec…)

    Michael Farrell

    12/03/2010 at 6:48 pm

    • Good one — thanks, Michael.


      12/03/2010 at 6:50 pm

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