The Grammarphobia Blog

Souls of Discretion

Q: I increasingly see the words “discrete” and “discreet” used incorrectly. Please differentiate. Thanks.

A: You’re right – a lot of people confuse these words.

“Discreet” means cautious or tactful or judicious. “Discrete” means separate or distinct. Example: “A discreet person keeps his work and personal life discrete.”

The two words, by the way, are pronounced the same way: di-SKREET

We acquired both “discrete” and “discreet” (by way of Old French) around 1385, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.

The two English words come from the same root, the Latin discretus (meaning separated), which is the past participle of the verb discernere (meaning to distinguish or to separate by sifting). The Latin verb, it turns out, is also the source of our word “discern.”

In the 1400s, the spellings “discrete,” and “discreet” (as well as “discret”) were used interchangeably for all senses, according to Barnhart, but in the 1500s “discreet” and “discrete” went their separate ways.

“Discrete” kept the meaning of separate or distinct, while “discreet” kept the meaning of careful, prudent, or discerning.

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