For many of these Grammar 101 posts, I’ve focused on the confusion between a pair of seemingly similar words, like compliment and complement. Today, we’re doing that again by discussing the difference between discrete and discreet. In terms of spelling, the only difference is that the final two letters are transposed. In terms of meaning, the words are worlds apart.
Discrete is defined as being a separate entity or part. A discrete element is distinctly separated from the other elements. The American flag is composed of three discrete colors: red, white, and blue. These three colors are completely separate and independent. The colors of the rainbow, by contrast, are not quite discrete, because they blend into one another. They are not distinctly independent and separated from one another.
Discreet, by contrast, refers to a respect for privacy or secrecy. Some definitions will say that it also refers to modesty or prudence, but more widespread usage refers to keeping something private. If you are telling your friend to keep a secret, you are telling him to keep that piece of information discreet. Alternatively, you could think of something as being “discreet” if it is meant to not draw too much attention. It lurks in the shadows or blends into the background. Dennis Rodman, for instance, is anything but discreet.
A great way to remember the difference between discrete and discreet? With the former, the two Es are separated from one another by the T. The two Es are discrete and distinctly separate from one another. With discreet, the T is pushed to the end of the word, as if it is a secret lurking in the shadows.
Don’t be discreet with your good grammar. Be discretely better.