A Discreet or Discrete Word, If You Have A Minute

I wonder whether you might have wondered about whether to use ‘discreet’ or ‘discrete’.

The problems of language use are often not so much about ‘correctness’, for its own sake, but more about a failure to communicate.

When two words sound the same, it’s easy to choose the wrong one; but it can make a mess of your meaning.

Discreet 

This means ‘private’ or ‘confidential’:
I was hoping to have a discreet conversation.

It also suggests ‘tactful’:
In tackling the complaint, she tried to be as discreet as possible.

It can also mean ‘modest’, ‘restrained’ or ‘unassuming’:
They were usually discreet in their speech, dress and behaviour.

Some uses suggest ‘unobtrusiveness’:
The waiters were trained to offer discreet and efficient service.

Unfortunately, lots of writers use the wrong word.

Wrong usage

A US novelist has put out a series of books called Discrete Inquiries. As I’ll explain shortly, that’s a valid term, but not in this case. 

This author uses it as the name of a security/investigative firm, and the blurb continues the error:
Their many women clients want discrete security so other people can not (sic) know about their problems.

Law firms make the same mistake.

One recommends its services to
... those who need legal advice or merely wish to make discrete inquiries.

Another promises clients they will 
… make discrete inquiries on their behalf.

Clearly, in all cases, they should have written ‘discreet’, as they also refer to private and confidential discussions.

Despite some bizarre and copycat claims that ‘discreetness’ is acceptable, the noun form of ‘discreet’ is ‘discretion’:
I can assure you of my complete discretion in this sensitive matter.

The adverb is ‘discreetly’:
He moved discreetly from group to group, catching snatches of conversation.

The opposite of ‘discreet’ is ‘indiscreet’:
Their indiscreet behaviour led to some raised eyebrows’

The ‘in’ prefix is also added to the other forms.

Discrete 

It means ‘separate’ or ‘distinct’, ‘individual’ or ‘independent’: 
Individual calls for evidence will be issued for each of these short, discrete inquiries as they are launched.
There will be discrete inquiries into 15 forms of (literary genres).

In these cases, ‘discrete inquiries’ means exactly what the authors intended. In other words, the inquiries will be made separately and independently of one another, probably by different individuals.

They might or might not be carried out discreetly 😉

Those of you who are familiar with mathematical terms will know about ‘discrete data’, as opposed to ‘continuous data’.

Discrete data have fixed, individual, countable values – for example, the number of people in your family, or the amount of sugar you put into a cake mixture.

The rarely used noun form is ‘discreteness’:
… there is more to the story of discreteness, randomness and predictability in quantum mechanics than commonly thought.

We’ll just take their word for that.

The adverb is ‘discretely’:
The items are discretely labelled with individual tags.

The opposite of ‘discrete’ is ‘non-discrete’:
Non-discrete data are also known as continuous data.

A discreet warning

Just quietly, beware of something called the Cambridge English Corpus. It sets out examples of word usage, apparently based on the public’s usage or contributions; the method isn’t 100% clear.

My opinion is that it employs some form of AI to collect incidences of the word from … well, anywhere. And they go unchecked (who’s surprised?). In fact, about half of the examples for the use of ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’ are wrong.

If you confuse these two words, you risk mangling your meaning. The use of ‘discreet inquiries’, as opposed to ‘discrete inquiries’, is a perfect example. They mean two entirely different things.

A word choice is ‘wrong’ when it conveys something you didn’t intend.

Find out more ways to Be Word Wise.

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