Q&A: Discreet or Discrete? Discretion advised…

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it’s we’re making discreet enquiries about the word discrete…

Q: We’re back!
A: Can’t believe they renewed us for another year.
Q: I know, right? So… what do you think?
A: About?
Q: My hair of course!
A: It’s very colourful.
Q: Yes. I watched a lot of Sylvester Stallone films over the holidays and went into the salon yesterday and asked for a new look inspired by Rambo.
A: Oh, wait…
Q: Yep.
A: They didn’t?
Q: Uh huh…
A: Oh dear. Well, rainbow DOES sound quite similar to Rambo…
Q: It does. But I have been making discrete enquiries today about changing it back.
A: Discreet.
Q: Yes, that’s what I said.
A: But not how you spelt it. “Discrete” and “discreet” are two spellings with two completely different meanings.
Q: Of course they are. Welcome back.
A: Great to be back. So probably the most common – and the one that relates to “discretion” is “discreet”. It means to be careful or quiet; to keep things on the “down low” and not draw attention.
Q: Examples?
A: “I have been making discreet enquiries” – meaning you’ve been doing it in private. Or “I am discreet about who I work with.”
Q: Okay, so what about the other one
A: “Discrete” means to be individually separate – it’s basically another way of saying “distinct”.
Q: And most people just end up saying “distinct”.
A: Yes, that’s true. But you’ll still find it used in many areas including science: “Each species had discrete characteristics” or “the discrete samples on offer”.
Q: Any hints on remembering which one is which?
A: In “discrete” the two Es are separate and distinct from each other, just like its meaning! Unlike “discreet”.
Q: Nice. Okay, well that was kind of an easy one to get us into the year. Usually by now I’m pulling my hair out.
A: Your Rambo hair?
Q: Yes. I guess that’s what I get for trying to be discreet and whispering it to her. Rainbows and Rambo couldn’t be more discrete if they tried…
A: Good usage. Well, that’s the Q&A over for this week.
Q: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off!
A: Are you quoting Rambo?
Q: Maybe.
A: It was a very colourful performance. Really took in the whole spectrum. We knew if we waited till the end, we’d find gold.
Q: I hate you…

 

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