Discreet and discrete

Any discussion about language usage tends to provoke disagreements between so-called prescriptivists (those who argue that we should try and maintain what they consider to be standard or correct usage) and descriptivists (those who argue that language just reflects current usage and is thus always evolving and that there is no timeless standard that can be appealed to.)

David Owen writes about a pet peeve of his that he claims is beyond an issue of taste and is objectively objectionable.

Here’s an example of a sentence type that I think no writer should ever use:

A former resident of Brooklyn, Mrs. Jones is survived by three daughters and five grandchildren.

The first phrase is an appositive—typically a noun or noun phrase that modifies another noun or noun phrase, which appears next to it in the sentence. (“A former resident of Brooklyn” and “Mrs. Jones” refer to the same person, so they are said to be “in apposition.”) Appositives almost always follow the noun they modify, and are set off by commas; the kind I don’t like come first.

My problem with all such sentences is that they seem to have been turned inside out: they start in one direction, then swerve in another. The awkwardness is obvious if you imagine hearing one in conversation. No one has ever said to you, “A sophomore at Cornell, my niece is coming home for Christmas,” or “Sixty-six years old, my wife is an incredible cook.” Either sentence, if spoken, would sound almost comical, as though the speaker were struggling to learn English. (You wouldn’t use one in an e-mail or a text to a friend, either.)

Owen argues that this form used to be quite rare and likely was popularized by newspapers because it enables a lot of information to be presented compactly, and then it spread everywhere. Of course, there are many differences in the way we write from the way we speak. I myself do not see anything particularly objectionable in that type of sentence construction when writing.

But in the essay, I found this little nugget of interesting information at the very end.

“Peeves are interesting,” Okrent told me. “Sometimes one person’s opinion can affect the way something is taught from then on.” Hardly anyone had a problem with split infinitives before the nineteenth century, when a number of grammar and usage guides—among them “Live and Learn” (“over 1000 mistakes corrected”)—took a stand against them. Fowler and his successors dismissed the prohibition as wrongheaded, but many teachers continued to insist on it, as mine did in junior high. A similar example, which Okrent cites in “Highly Irregular,” has to do with “discrete” and “discreet.” These two words, she writes, were once merely alternative spellings of the same word—which, like many words, had more than one meaning. But then a grammarian or a lexicographer decided that both spellings should be preserved, and that the main meanings should be divided between them. This idea caught on, creating an orthographic distinction that writers ever since have struggled to keep straight. “This was all relatively recent,” she told me. “Now it’s something we learn in school, and you’re an idiot if you don’t get it right.”

I have noticed that many writers use the two words discrete and discreet in ways that I had considered wrong. I never knew that they were at one time merely alternative spellings of a word that had the two meanings, and that one deciphered the meaning from the context. It seems to me however that if you have a word that has two spellings and two distinct meanings, assigning each spelling to a meaning seems logical.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I find etymology very interesting and I use etymonline.com constantly. Just looking up “cheesy” (cheap or inferior) led me down a rabbit hole that was quite fun.
    I don’t think split infinitives are a big deal nowadays. I don’t even remember any of my teachers mentioning them. Just because they are impossible in Latin is no reason to disparage them in English.
    Also, I agree with you Mano, that we all use different language styles in different contexts and no one is automatically superior to another.

  2. Ridana says

    I don’t care so much about how people speak if I can understand them, but in writing I’m mostly prescriptivist and have a lot of peeves. 🙂 One that really bothers me lately is people using “weary” when they mean “wary,” because I can only tell about half the time which they really intend. I also wonder if they use “weary” for both “tired” and “suspicious of,” or if they use a different word to mean “tired” because they think “weary” only means “suspicious of.”

    Another misspelling I see surprisingly often is “ridicules” for “ridiculous.” I can kind of see where that comes from (though I’d expect them to spell it as “ridiculess”), so I just think it’s funny and not really annoying.

    As for split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, I don’t care, and do both myself.

  3. Katydid says

    Weary/wary, wonder/wander: they do not mean the same thing but I see that a lot, too. In spoken language, the letters “t” and “d” seem to be disappearing: even newscasters are talking about “im-POOR-int” news and the other day they were talking about “ASS-ro-nots” going to Mars.

  4. mnb0 says

    For non-native English speakers like me: what different meanings do discreet and discrete have? When I see those words I immediately assume the first one is Dutch …..

  5. another stewart says

    @4: Discrete is as in discrete maths -- it means that something is a distinct entity rather than part of a continuum. Discreet refers actions that are performed while avoiding the public gaze.

  6. another stewart says

    @3: In English an alveolar tap occurs as an allophone for the “dental” plosives (t/d). Wikipedia tells me that this is particularly common in North America.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    @#4 & 6
    I think discrete is a fairly uncommon word today, but it was was very common when discussing electronics in the 1980s. Integrated circuits were pretty primitive so one would often hear something like, “Is there an IC that can do that function, or do you need to build a circuit with discrete transistors?” Also, music systems were available either as an all in one chassis or as discrete turntables, radio tuners, amplifiers, etc. Anyone who wanted to be considered a true audiophile would only build their system from discrete components.

  8. beholder says

    For all intensive purposes, I think the proscriptivists have the wrong idea. If they were given free reign over how we use language, I would be weary of what they say passes mustard and what goes to hell in a handbag. Thankfully it’s a mute point for most people my age — what the stuffy academic types say is out of bounce is freely ignored. We don’t have to treat English like a jig-solve puzzle, and it would probably help our self of steam if we relaxed about it.

  9. Tethys says

    English relies on spelling and word order to convey meaning, especially for adjectives.

    Of course the people who standardized spelling decided that discreet means to do something in a manner that does not attract attention, but it also means to keep information to oneself.
    Lawyers and medical professionals are legally bound to be discreet with each discrete individuals private information.

    I don’t mind a split infinitive or Vulgar Latin applied to Germanic inflectional endings, but I’m also pretty comfortable with sentences like “I’m going to the store, do you want to come with?” or “Throw the cow over the fence some hay.”

    They don’t actually make sense in English because it lost the inflectional endings that indicate which is subject and which is object, and a dative case. English uses fronting to indicate the subject. Thus, you aren’t allowed to dangle your participles off the end, but it’s standard in many other Germanic languages.

    As far as A former resident of Brooklyn, I agree that it’s a poor sentence structure, though it is not difficult to understand the intended meaning of that sentence.
    It sounds like an obituary, where you pay per character including spaces.

  10. John Morales says

    I’ve always perceived the locution “is survived by” as bizarre, because it makes it seem like someone’s relatives’ lives were in danger due to the person in question.

  11. Katydid says

    @7: my point is that they’re completely ignoring the plosives--voiced or not voiced, they’re completed elided. An alveolar tap would turn “important” into “impor’ant” (glottal stop). It’s completely stripped out of the word. It’s just really lazy, careless speech that rattles on about “ass-ro-nots” and “in-poor-int”.

    As I type this, I’ve got the news on in the background and the news reporter is discussing “Prez-ih-int Trump”.

  12. Tethys says

    It’s just really lazy, careless speech that rattles on about “ass-ro-nots” and “in-poor-int”.

    I susspect the Botox is making it difficult for the talking heads to enunshiate der virds. I observe a similar trend with eliding the wh in who, what, when so you hear hoo, wut, wen.

  13. billseymour says

    Tethys @15 mentions “…do you want to come with?” and “Throw the cow over the fence some hay.”  One usage that I thought was strange when I was living in Pittburgh, PA, was using what I thought should be a predicate adjective modifying the verb, to be, as the direct object of the verb, to need, for example, “that thing needs fixed.”

  14. Alan G. Humphrey says

    Mano, you were not the least bit discreet in showing your preference for discrete spellings.

  15. Katydid says

    @19; I’m hearing that from younger newscasters as well as older ones; presumably the ones in their 20s don’t yet have Botox? There’s also an ad for a face cream featuring a teenaged speaker who informs us it’s “im-POOR-int” to use the product, and with it you can “face anythink!”

    @20; in addition to Pennsylvania, I’ve also noticed that in Ohio and West Virginia; “The dog needs out” and “The children need fed”. Always throws me for a loop.

  16. consciousness razor says

    moarscienceplz, #9

    I think discrete is a fairly uncommon word today, but it was was very common when discussing electronics in the 1980s.

    Not sure if it’s uncommon, but maybe a bit specialized or technical. If you study math, as everyone does to some extent, it’s jargon that will definitely come up now and then.

    Also, music systems were available either as an all in one chassis or as discrete turntables, radio tuners, amplifiers, etc. Anyone who wanted to be considered a true audiophile would only build their system from discrete components.

    The really essential feature, in order for it to work as intended as a class marker, is that you spent too much for it.

    I’m not sure, but it might be that “modular” is used more often these days, which seems like a pretty fashionable term in some circles. Not that many still use systems like that, some do…. But if for instance you have some ridiculously elaborate modular synth setup too — an example at the top of the search from (I kid you not) redbull.com — then you might think everything should be modular, as God intended. The principle is “more boxes with lights and buttons = better.”

  17. Shawn Smith says

    The construction that seems to be becoming more popular that sounds just wrong to my ears is something like “Jill gave Joe and I a hundred dollars.” That same person will have absolutely no problem saying “Jill gave me a hundred dollars.” I suspect it comes from being corrected when they were kids and they would tell their parents “Me and Joe are going to the park to throw frisbees.”

    As for ending in prepositions, “where you at?” is the only one that really grates on my ears. It has been way too common for over 30 years now. Is the glottal stop in “where are you?” all that difficult? Does every word have to be a contraction?

  18. mnb0 says

    @6 another stewart says: thanks. We Dutchies use “discreet” for both meanings. There never is any confusion. And it’s certainly not uncommon.

  19. Katydid says

    @26: the construction I hear a lot is “me and…”. For example, spoken in a meeting by an adult who was a native speaker of English, “Me and her tooken the class!” (ironically, the class was in communication, and the speaker was the head of the Comms Team…)

  20. John Morales says


    The really essential feature, in order for it to work as intended as a class marker, is that you spent too much for it.

    I agree; it has to be discrete but not discreet.

  21. rockwhisperer says

    ‘Discrete’ vs. ‘Discreet’ is a pet peeve of mine.

    In mathematics, there are discrete, piece-wise continuous, and continuous functions. In common lexicon, there are discrete building blocks (say, bricks) of a continuous whole (say, an arch). Discrete is a technical term.

    Discreet is a human behavior that involves not sharing your own business that ought to stay private, or not sharing other people’s business that isn’t yours to share.

    Why is that distinction so damned difficult?

  22. Holms says

    Pronunciation pet peeve: ‘processes’ as in the plural of process, pronounced something like “process-eez”. Just watched a video with about a dozen instances of that, and found myself wincing half way through.

  23. says

    Sometimes you have to give up and accept that “sike” is now an allowable alternative to “psych” because it has become so embedded that you might as well find some windmills to tilt at instead of fighting the evolution of language.

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