Q&A: Discreet or Discrete? Discretion advised…

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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