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Spell check is not your friend: discreet vs. discrete

spHere’s the first appearance of another new segment at the blog: Spell check is not your friend.

Sure, spell check can be a useful utility. But it is not necessarily your friend. Because as soon as you start to rely too much on your spell checker, it will toss you under the bus.

That’s because spell checkers do a fine job of recognizing words from non-words, but they’re still a long way (mostly) from knowing whether you’re using the right word.

Today’s case in point: the homophones discreet and discrete. With growing regularity, we’re seeing writers using discrete when they mean to use discreet. (We almost never see it the other way around.)

Discreet means “prudent” or “tactful” — many people also use it to mean “subtle,” which we suppose is okay. Discrete, however, means “distinct or “separate.” For example…

Dave made some discreet inquiries about the possible layoffs.

Most restrooms are designed in consideration of two discrete user types — men and women.

We have no doubt that one day, spell checkers will be able to interpret that you’re likely using the wrong word in a given sentence.

But until then, don’t rely too heavily on spell check, and when in doubt about a word’s use, look it up. The Internet is useful for more than Twitter. (We think.)

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