A sole is a type of fish that discreetly hides in the sand of the ocean floor, but it isn’t the origin of either of these phrases.
Your fingers might have the “sole” vs. “soul” debate as they dance across the keyboard, aiming for the correct spelling, but, really, it comes down to that little word “of.”
To get started, remember:
- A “sole” is is the underside of a foot, the part of a shoe under one’s foot, or the previously mentioned fish; it can also be a synonym for single or exclusive as an adjective.
- A “soul” is the intangible essence of someone, his or her spiritual being, spark of life, moral force, or total self. (There’s a grander debate here we don’t have room for, but you get the gist.)
But determining the difference between “sole” and “soul” is only half of the battle here.
If you are tactful and unobtrusive, the correct expression is the “soul of discretion.”
According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, this phrasing has been recorded as far back as at least 1850. Jane Austen gave the phrase to Fanny in Sense and Sensibility, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave the phrase to Sherlock Homes as he described Dr. Watson. More recently, you could use it to describe how well you subtly changed your boss’s typo from “bunker down” to “hunker down.”
If you are the only one making a decision, the correct phrasing is “sole discretion.”
In this usage, “discretion” is not about being “discreet”; rather, it means making a responsible choice. By adding “sole” to this idea, it is to make a responsible choice by yourself.
Again, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, this wording has been recorded as far back as at least 1723, usually in legal discussions.
Of course, if you want to hash out the differences between “discrete” and “discreet,” I won’t be the soul of discretion when I shamelessly plug a resource for that answer; whether you follow my advice is up to your sole discretion.
Happy writing, folks!
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