Perhaps the most difficult words to master are the ones that sound alike but have different meanings. I recently wrote an article about the distinction between compliment and complement.

Someone asked me the other day about the words, discreet and discrete. They sound alike, but the spelling can be confusing.

Discreet means tactful or unobtrusive. Some things in life need a gentle and subtle touch. We approach them carefully making sure we don’t offend anybody along the way. That kind of behavior is discreet. The noun associated with it is discretion.

On the other hand, discrete means distinct or separate. We might use it to emphasize that two things aren’t associated with each other. You might find your bedroom flooded because your roof is leaking. On the same day, a plumbing problem caused by your washing machine has caused your basement to flood. These two problems are discrete because the causes are different and separate. Discreteness is the noun associate with discrete.

Although you might be tempted to use these two words interchangeably, you have to remember that they are discrete! Their meanings are very different.