Discreet vs. Discrete

Homophones are nothing but trouble. They often top the lists of commonly confused words and common spelling mistakes. There’s no way of knowing what they mean unless we hear them in context or see them in writing. But even if we see them in writing, many homophone pairs are spelled so similarly that we might not know which is which. “Discreet” and “discrete” is one of these pairs.

Being homophones, “discreet” and “discrete” are pronounced the same: dis-KREET. They contain exactly the same number of letters, which often isn’t the case with homophones. In fact, both words contain the same exact letters arranged in a different order, which adds to the confusion. The “t” in “discrete” separates the two Es, which is something you would do well to remember because it hints at the meaning of the word.

Discreet and Discrete: What’s the Difference?

“Discreet” has the better-known meaning: inconspicuous, proper, private, or unnoticeable. If you were a person who handles problems (especially potentially embarrassing problems) without calling attention to them, you might be considered a discreet person. You can also be discreet about your accomplishments, which would mean that you’re not boastful and don’t go around getting in people’s faces with all the great things you’ve done.

“Discrete,” on the other hand, means separate. If you’re into computers and you own a laptop, you might be aware of the difference between discrete graphics cards and integrated ones. Sometimes, you can directly substitute the word “discrete” for the word “separate.” You could say that the new desk you ordered came in five discrete parts that you need to put together, for example.

How to Use Discreet

There are several ways you can use the adjective “discreet:”

To describe a person with proper conduct, especially with regard to speaking:
“I’d like to see him a little more discreet at times,” she said. “I would hope he would learn a little more diplomacy.” The Chronicle Telegram

To describe a person or a thing that’s not obstructive or easily noticeable:
The Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge was launched by the NIH division as part of its commitment to look for a non-invasive, discreet wearable technology not only for use by the authorities, but also for individuals. Science World Report

To describe person or object that is not pretentious; a modest person or object:
Service is attentive without being intrusive, in keeping with the overall air of discreet, understated elegance in the whole establishment. Director Magazine

“Discreetly” is the adverb form of “discreet:”
No one has asked to recreate any of the receptions in Four Weddings and a Funeral but it could probably be discreetly arranged. Radio Times

“Discretion” is a noun associated with “discreet,” even though the noun form of “discreet” is “discreetness:”

Owners have designed their business around the idea that people will be willing to pay $250 a month to eat, drink and conduct business in a place that promises discreetness in an era when every moment is documented by somebody via cellphones and social media. Arkansas Online

How to Use Discrete

The adjective “discrete” can be used for:

A person or object that is not connected with something; a part of something that is individual and separate:
If you’re a casual or mainstream gamer, you don’t need a discrete graphics card, Intel says. Instead, look at integrated graphics, which are getting more powerful by the day, said Gregory Bryant, vice president and general manager of Intel’s desktop clients platform. PC World

In mathematics, having a finite number of elements:
There are two types of variable—discrete and continuous. A discrete variable can only take certain values from a finite set. A continuous variable can take any value. BBC

“Discretely” is the adjective form of “discrete:”

For the Atrum 2013 and 2014 exploration programs, all coal seams intersected were sampled. Coal plies were sampled discretely on the basis of lithological characteristics and quality. ABN Newswire

“Discreteness” is the noun form of “discrete:”
Acquiring knowledge almost always serves the public good. Deploying that knowledge is a 50-50 enterprise at best. Recognizing the discreteness of these two elements of science is the surest way to reconcile them. The Washington Post