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.
Tip
If you struggle to keep the distinction clear, a good rule of thumb is that discrete is mostly used in technical or academic contexts, while discreet is more likely to be used in a subjective way, making a judgement about a person, a behaviour, or a design.

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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’.

Examples: Discrete in a sentence
To accomplish this, the user has to carry out a number of discrete actions.

Countable nouns refer to discrete entities, uncountable nouns to something more continuous or abstract.

Note
The adverb form of discrete is discretely (not to be confused with discreetly). The noun is discreteness (not to be confused with discreetness). The opposite of discrete is indiscrete (but it’s quite rarely used).

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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.

Example: Discreet to mean inconspicuous
Ibrahim was a discreet man. He wore discreet clothes and made discreet gestures. People sometimes failed to notice he was there.

In a slightly distinct sense, used to describe a person, it can indicate that they are prudent they exercise good judgement and act with caution.

Example: Discreet to mean prudent
Maria is always discreet in her behavior. She weighs up all the alternatives and avoids making any rash decisions.
Note
The adverb form of discreet is discreetly (not to be confused with discretely). The noun is discreetness (not discreteness). The opposite of discreet is indiscreet.

The noun discretion (pronounced [disk-resh-un]) is also related in meaning to discreet: it can mean either the quality of good judgement or simply the power to make a choice.

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.

  1. Please try to be ______ in your deliveries. Our customers value their privacy.
  2. The number of students in the class is a ______ variable.
  3. The collection consists of several ______ parts.
  4. It would be in______ to boast about your salary.
  5. Neilina’s fashion sense was ______; she didn’t like to draw attention to herself.
  1. Please try to be discreet in your deliveries. Our customers value their privacy.
    • ‘Discreet’ here means ‘inconspicuous’ – not likely to be noticed.
  1. The number of students in the class is a discrete variable.
  1. The collection consists of several discrete parts.
    • Here, ‘discrete’ is used to mean ‘separate’ – the parts are not connected to each other.
  1. It would be indiscreet to boast about your salary.
    • ‘Indiscreet’ means the opposite of ‘discreet’ – in this case, in the sense of ‘immodest’ or ‘imprudent’.
  1. Neilina’s fashion sense was discreet; she didn’t like to draw attention to herself.
    • Here, ‘discreet’ is used to mean ‘modest’ or ‘unpretentious’.

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Frequently asked questions

What is a synonym for ‘discrete’?

Some synonyms and near synonyms for the adjective discrete are:

  • Detached
  • Distinct
  • Independent
  • Noncontinuous
  • Separate
  • Single
  • Unconnected
What is a synonym for ‘discreet’?

Some synonyms and near synonyms for the different senses of the adjective discreet are:

Inconspicuous Prudent
Imperceptible Cautious
Invisible Circumspect
Subtle Discerning
Unnoticeable Intelligent
Unobtrusive Judicious

 

What’s the difference between discrete and continuous variables?

Discrete and continuous variables are two types of quantitative variables:

  • Discrete variables represent counts (e.g., the number of objects in a collection).
  • Continuous variables represent measurable amounts (e.g., water volume or weight).

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Caulfield, J. (2023, August 23). Discrete or Discreet | Difference, Meaning & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 11 June 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/frequently-confused-words/discreet-or-discrete/

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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes for Scribbr about his specialist topics: grammar, linguistics, citations, and plagiarism. In his spare time, he reads a lot of books.