Discrete or Discreet | Difference, Meaning & Examples
Discrete and discreet are two adjectives that are commonly confused. The two words are pronounced the same ([disk-reet]) and related in origin, but they have distinct meanings and should not be used interchangeably.
- Discrete means “separate” or “distinct.” It’s used especially in mathematical and research contexts as the opposite of “continuous.”
- Discreet is used to mean “inconspicuous,” “cautious,” or “discerning.” It’s used in less technical contexts, usually to describe people, actions, and things.
|Examples: Discrete in a sentence||Examples: Discreet in a sentence|
|Discrete variables are those that are counted using integers.||Please be discreet about this; I don’t want anyone else to know.|
|The symphony proceeds through four discrete movements, each with its own theme.||The car’s color and design are discreet. It’s elegant, but it’s not flashy.|
|The patient passed through several discrete stages of illness before recovering.||It’s essential to be discreet in my line of work—you can’t just act on your first instinct.|
What does discrete mean?
Discrete is an adjective used to describe something that is individual—not continuous with something else. Used with a plural noun, it describes a group of things that can be individually distinguished from each other.
The word is frequently used in technical, mathematical, and research contexts (e.g., discrete mathematics, discrete variables, discrete probability distributions). In a nontechnical, informal context, you’d be more likely to use a synonym like “separate” or “distinct.”
What does discreet mean?
Discreet is an adjective with a few different senses. It can be used to mean “inconspicuous” (unlikely to be noticed), often describing a person, action, or object. Relatedly, it can indicate the quality of modesty—which also involves not drawing attention to oneself.
In a slightly distinct sense, used to describe a person, it can indicate that they are prudent—they exercise good judgment and act with caution.
Are the two words related?
Although they have quite different meanings now, discrete and discreet were once simply two spellings of the same word, based on the Latin “discrētus.” Either spelling could be used for either meaning.
The logical connection between the two meanings is that the ability to keep things separate (discrete) in your mind or in how you organize your life is related to the quality of being discerning or prudent (discreet).
Since the 18th century, the two spellings have been strictly associated with the two different meanings—but their origin as a single word may explain why people still have some difficulty distinguishing between them today.
Worksheet: Discreet vs. discrete
You can test your understanding of the difference between “discreet” and “discrete” with the worksheet below. Fill in either “discreet” or “discrete” in each sentence.
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Frequently asked questions
- What is a synonym for “discrete”?
- What is a synonym for “discreet”?
- What is the difference between discrete and continuous variables?
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