Word confusion, part 5

Another word pair that make life difficult but can be explained readily – discreet and discrete.

A shocking secret, please handle it discreetly, pic: canadiandana.com

Discreet means judicious in conduct or speech, careful to avoid social embarrassment or distress esp. with regard to keeping a secret or a delicate fact.


“He is a very discreet person, he would never give away your secret.” or “Thank you very much for handling that delicate matter so discreetly, it could have caused me a lot of embarrassment if this had come out.”

Discrete is more of a technical term meaning distinct, separate, apart or detached from others.  Here are a couple of examples:

“There are several discrete steps that are required to complete this task.” and “There are several discrete buildings making up the campus of the university. ”

Both terms are really quite different in meaning but confusingly similar when it comes to spelling and pronunciation, in fact the pronunciation is identical for all practical purposes so in spoken English you will have to tell from the context which of the two words apply – which should be fairly straight forward, now that you are aware of the meaning of this confusing pair.


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