Discreet and discrete are two homophones that I regularly see used incorrectly when proofreading. Alongside affect/effect and bear/bare they have to be two of the peskiest words out there (click on the words to see my guides on each).
So, what are the different meanings of each? The Oxford English Dictionary defines them as follows:
1discreet adj. (discreeter, discreetest) careful and prudent, especially so as to avoid giving offence or attracting attention.
– DERIVATIVES discreetly discreetness n.
So, we use discreet when we are being tactful, sensitive and polite in what we say and do. We would use it in our writing like this:
‘She asked discreetly about his wife.’
‘The bodyguard followed a discreet distance behind.’
In the first sentence the speaker is asking sensitively about her colleague’s wife and we can assume that things are not well with the person and his wife.
In the second sentence the bodyguard is keeping their distance as they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
Despite sounding the same, discrete has a completely different meaning altogether:
1discrete adj. individually separate and distinct.
– DERIVATIVES discretely discreteness n.
Synonyms for discrete include; separate, individual and disjoined. We would use it like this:
‘The atoms in iron do not cluster into discrete molecules.’
‘You can break the jobs down into discrete steps.’
These two words sound exactly the same but their differences become clear when you examine them separately – or discretely! Discrete, I think, is the simpler of the two as its definition is very clear.
So, how to remember the difference between the two? The way I do it is to think of the two letter ‘e’s that are part of each word. Discrete means separate and the ‘t’ separates the two ‘e’s from each other. In discreet, however, the two ‘e’s are next to each other as the ‘t’ is at the end. If your meaning is about being distinct or separate, choose the one in which the letters that appear twice in each word are separated.
I hope this helps a little. If you have another way of working out which one you need please share it by commenting.
1 Stevenson, A. and Waite, M. 2011, Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1911