Discrete vs. discreet

Things that are separate or distinct from one another are discrete. This spelling is easy to remember because the two e‘s in the second syllable are discrete from each other. Discreet means cautious, reserved, or modest, especially in speech. For instance, a discreet person is one who knows when not to speak about sensitive subjects.

Discretion is the noun corresponding to discreet, so discretion is a cautious, reserved, or modest manner, and the word is also extended to mean freedom to act on one’s own judgment. Discrete‘s corresponding noun is discreteness. 

Although these homophones share French and ultimately Latin roots, they differentiated early in their use in English, and both have now borne their modern meanings for approximately five centuries.

Examples

To be able to combine discrete characteristics of species is a dream of science. [Genetics and Literature]

However, the actor hasn’t curbed his behaviour completely—he’s just more discreet. [Zimbio]

December is a series of discrete expeditions, and energy must be budgeted if you’re to go the distance. [Independent]

Leave it to the reigning queen of ugly chic to make décolletage discreet and quietly subversive. [NY Times]

There is still color, but in discrete bursts: the orange of a 1965 Olivier Mourgue Djinn Relaxer, the cobalt blue of a 1968 Bouloum chaise, the red of a 1968 Kazuhide Takahama Suzanne sofa. [NY Times]

Roja is discreet about his clients, but notes that he is “off to Russia” next week for conduct a “fitting” for one super-rich customer. [Telegraph]

Sources

1. Discreet in the OED (subscription required)
2. Discrete in the OED

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