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Know Your Homonyms! Discreet vs. Discrete & More

In this edition of Know Your Homonyms, I cover seven sets of homophones that start with "D" or "E." Read on below to learn about the differences between these similar-sounding word pairs: discreet & discrete, dual & duel, elicit & illicit, emigrate & immigrate, enervate & innervate, ensure & insure, and enumerable & innumerable.

Regarding the last five sets of homophones (which start with "E" and "I"), you'll note that they differ only in their prefixes. Accordingly, I'll pay extra attention to the prefixes of these words to ensure that you understand their impact on the words' meanings. The prefixes make the difference between two words that are very similar in meaning (as with ensure & insure) and two words that are opposite in meaning (as with emigrate & immigrate).

Know Your Homonyms: discreet vs. discrete, dual vs. duel, elicit vs. illicit, emigrate vs. immigrate, enervate vs. innervate, ensure vs. insure, & enumerable vs. innumerable

A Quick Note On Pronunciation

Regarding the five sets of words that start with "E" and "I," these aren't quite homophones, as each set has a slight difference in the first vowel's pronunciation. However, as in other entries in this series, I've included near-homophones that are commonly confused. After all, in most dialects, there is very little difference between the short "e" sound in emigrate and the short "i" sound in immigrate, to use one example.

Reviewing The Key Prefixes

Before we start I also want to briefly define a few of the prefixes that we'll see in the words below. Knowing these will help you to understand the distinction in each set of words.

  • e- (ex-): "out of or away from," "outside" The common prefix ex- means "out of," "away from," or "outside"; it is often shortened to just e-, especially when the root word starts with an "M" or an "N." Example words: "exterior" (outside); "eject" (throw out); "elope" (run away to get married)

  • en-, im-, or in-: "into," "in" There are various spellings of this prefix (depending on the language of origin), but they all have meaning related to "into" or "in." The prefix ends with an "N" unless the following letter is an "M"—in that case, it ends with an "M" to match the root. Example words: "envision" (to see into the future), "immerse" (to swim in), "invade" (to send an army into another territory)

  • il-, im-, or in-: "not" There are several prefixes that mean "not," but these are probably the trickiest because, as you can see, they share spellings with other prefixes. This prefix usually ends with an "N" but ends with an "L" or and "M" if the root word starts with an "L" or an "M," respectively. Example words: "illegal" (not legal), "immoral" (not moral), "indecent" (not decent)

Discreet vs. Discrete

These two words share the same origin: the Latin word discretus (meaning "separated"). This Latin word also had the metaphorical meaning of "discerning; careful"—indeed, the English word "discern" comes from the same root. This metaphorical meaning arises because someone who is good at separating items into appropriate categories can be said to have a certain perceptive ability.

In English, until the 17th century, the literal meaning of "separate" and the metaphorical meaning of "careful" coexisted in both spellings, discreet and discrete. However, at some point afterward, the two spellings took on specific meanings, with discreet meaning "careful" and discrete meaning "separate." The distinction still exists today, although discreet now usually refers specifically to what people say aloud: "wise" (as in "knowing what to say and not say"), "modest" (as in "knowing not to brag"), and "unobtrusive" (as in "not speaking up out of turn"). In its most common usage, discreet refers to a person who knows not to spread rumors or reveal other peoples' secrets. In addition, discrete now also refers to finite numbers in mathematics (as in "a discreet variable").

Here are some examples:

I must be discreet with the study participants' personal data so as to protect their privacy. Evgeny was so discreet that even his close friends were unaware of his tragic past. Angie had several discrete options, though each of them had significant drawbacks. In discrete mathematics, you do not have to worry about tricky concepts such as infinity.

There is no obvious way of telling the two words apart, but I have a handy mnemonic that will help you if you know geography: discrete means "distinct; separate" just like Crete is separate from the European mainland (because it is an island).

Dual vs. Duel

These words both stem from the Latin root duo (meaning "two"). Dual with an "A" refers to something that has two parts, but duel with an "E" refers to a fight or other conflict between only two people. For instance,

Ling has a dual major in economics and philosophy; she hopes to become a professor. The duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is a key scene in the musical.

To keep these words straight, remember that both duel and "people" contain the letter "E"; if referring to a conflict between people, then, use duel, but if referring to anything else, use dual instead.

Elicit vs. Illicit

These words look similar, but they actually have different roots. The spelling elicit is from the prefix e- (ex-), meaning "out of," and the root lacere (meaning "to entice"); the root is spelled differently here because it is a combining form (Latin is complicated). Elicit thus means "to draw forth (information)" or "to bring out." It usually carries the subtext of encouraging a person to share information.

By contrast, illicit comes from the prefix il-, meaning "not," and the root (also from Latin) licitus (meaning "lawful"). It thus means "unlawful." Here are example sentences with both versions:

The various parts of the tent are tied together with leather cords. Ernestine spent the week chopping two cords of wood to heat the cabin for the winter.

Even though these words have different roots, the best way of keeping them straight is probably to remember their prefixes, not their roots. If you know that e- means "out" and il- means "not," then you'll be able to easily figure out that elicit means "to draw out" and illicit means "not lawful."

Emigrate vs. Immigrate

These words are simply opposites. Both are based on the Latin root migrare (meaning "to move"). Emigrate uses the prefix e- (ex-), meaning "out of," so it means "to move out of"; immigrate uses the prefix im- (in-), meaning "into," so it means "to move into." Over time, these words have gradually become mostly restricted to discussions of human migration, particularly from one country to another.

These words (and their cousins, the nouns emigrant and immigrant), are easy to confuse because—in most cases—someone who is emigrating from one country is also immigrating to another country. However, they should be clear as long as you remember what the prefixes mean: e- for "out of" and im- for "into." You may also want to learn the related term émigré, which refers specifically to someone who has left their home country to flee political persecution. Here is a short paragraph that clarifies the distinctions in these terms:

Vladimir Nabokov's family emigrated from Russia in 1920, eventually settling in Berlin. While there, Nabokov's father ran a newspaper for émigrés, but after 17 years, the family was forced to immigrate to France to escape anti-Semitism in Germany. After only a few years, however, the family had to flee again due to the Nazis' advance. They eventually became immigrants to the United States.

Enervate vs. Innervate

These words are also antonyms, and for the same reasons, as they are based on the prefixes e- ("out of") and in- ("into"). The root means what you'd expect: "nerve" or "energy." Thus, to enervate is to take energy or vitality out of something, but to innervate is to stimulate something (i.e., to add "nerve"). Enervate is used generally and can refer to either physical or mental energy, but innervate is usually restricted to biological uses (as in innervating a muscle). For instance,

By the end of the week, Rhoda felt truly enervated; on Saturday, she did not leave her bed. Electric shocks are used to innervate a stopped heart—often getting it to beat again.

Once again, the prefixes are the key: e- for "out of" and in-for "into."

Ensure vs. Insure

These words have different forms of the same prefix: en- and in-, both meaning "into." In broad strokes, then, each means "to make into a sure thing." However, there is a distinction between them, as ensure is used broadly to refer to any situation, but insure should be restricted only to the act of getting insurance. (In other words, if you insure something, you are paying a small amount of money regularly so as to avoid having to pay a very large amount of money if something bad occurs.) In short, if money is changing hands, use insure, but if not, use ensure. Do not use insure to mean "make sure that something occurs"; that is imprecise (it should be ensure).

Also of note: you typically insure something "against" a negative event (similar to how "protect" is used), but you typically ensure "that" something positive will occur. Here are some examples:

The committee is working to ensure that the town is prepared for an economic downturn. Sal insured his house against flood damage by taking out a $500,000 policy.

Enumerable vs. Innumerable

Finally, we have two more opposites; they stem from the prefixes e- (ex-) and in- (the one meaning "not"). Something that is enumerable is countable (literally, "able to be counted out"), whereas something that is innumerable is not countable. As long as you remember that in- means "not" in this case and that enumerable related to the verb enumerate ("to count out"), you'll be able to remember these words correctly. See these examples:

Though the number of attendees is large, it is enumerable with the help of a computer. Every 17 years, the forest floor here is literally covered by innumerable cicadas.

That's all for this edition of Know Your Homonyms! Please let me know if you need any additional explanation, or if you have suggestions for other homonyms to cover in this series. You can leave a comment below or email me at Thank you for reading, and please visit the next time you need high-quality editing services.

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