So, I think we’re due a little pedantry. Look away now if precision bothers you, bores you, or gets in the way of your art. Personally, one of the things I love about writing is that it’s a lovely combination of science and art. Yes, it’s all about creativity, expressing yourself, painting pictures and materialising characters and situations with words. But there is method in that creation which is precise, with rules and rights and wrongs. The construction of language is scientific in nature – if you ignore all the rules, your words will be unintelligible. The artistic side of writing allows for occasional breaking of those rules, but artistic licence only works if, for the most part, you observe the rule you’re about to break. Otherwise it’s just a mistake.
Anyway. My occasional bouts of pedantry will stem from my love of language and its precision, and from the fact that the rules do serve a purpose, which is to give writing clarity. Clarity allows readers to see what you see when you’re putting those words on the page… and surely that’s the whole point?
Today I’m feeling pedantic about a pair of words, one of which is misused all over the place. The other, which would love to be used as frequently as its mistaken homophone, rarely shows up at all in comparison. And it bugs me.
I’m trying to be discreet about this, but there’s no way round it. I’m willing to bet there are people who’d read the previous sentence and go ‘that doesn’t look right…’ They’d say, ‘don’t you mean “discrete”?’ And I would say, ‘no. “Discreet” is discrete from “discrete”, in that they are both words in their own right with completely different meanings.’
And they have each been used correctly in the above paragraph. For some reason, which I can only assume stems from the fact that ‘discreet’ looks like a less sophisticated (and therefore assumed incorrect) spelling of ‘discrete’, ‘discreet’ rarely appears. I see people acting ‘discretely’ all the time when I’m sure the writer intends for them to be ‘discreet’. ‘Discrete’ in its correct usage isn’t a word non-scientists come across very often. It’s usually used to distinguish types of data or other examples of categories which are separate from one another. It is also a type of mathematics. Its definition, according to the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors is ‘distinct, separate’. ‘Discreet’, on the other hand, is defined as ‘tactful, judicious’.
The two are absolutely not interchangeable. They don’t even have similar meanings. Yet ‘discrete’ is bandied about in sentences it has no business occupying, while poor little ‘discreet’ sits abandoned on the sidelines while a usurper takes its place. They’re both great words with excellent uses… I just wish ‘discrete’ was put back in its distinct place and ‘discreet’ was no longer unobtrusive and neglected.