The Red Pen: “discrete” vs. “discreet”

We Need to Talk About Grammar is a weekly feature in which I complain about grammatical mistakes I encounter all too often. Feel free to commiserate below, and check out the archives here!

“Thanks so much for being discrete back there. I really didn’t want her to find out that I kissed Bob.”

You might think this person just told her friend that she appreciated that her friend didn’t blab her secret. But no; she thanked her friend for being “discrete,” which actually means “separate” or “distinct.”

Vol. 2 oops gif

This is an error I run into a lot. I see it so much, actually, that I often have to second-guess my own usage to make sure I’m using the correct word. (I hate when that happens!) The person in the sentence above meant to say, “Thanks so much for being discreet,” i.e., subtle or circumspect. “Discrete,” as you can see from the definition above, doesn’t make sense at all in this context.

I can definitely see how the distinction can be hard to remember. There’s only a small difference in spelling and neither word is overly common. In my experience, though, people say “discrete” when they really mean “discreet” quite often; I don’t usually see the mistake made the other way around. I just made this up off the top of my head, but maybe this will help some people remember: when you creep, you’re being discreet. They both have the double-E. Hopefully that’ll help a little.

Is this a mistake you ever find yourself making? I know I always have to double check myself on this one.

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4 thoughts on “The Red Pen: “discrete” vs. “discreet”

    • It happens more often than you might think, but I feel like a lot of people don’t notice because the spellings are so similar, and neither word gets used super often. It’s something that’s always bugged me, though, because I had a friend in high school who was into discrete math who would occasionally call it “discreet math” and I always had to fix it in her papers. =P

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