As someone with English as a second language, I sometimes have trouble with knowing what words are "appropriate" for certain situations. Discern is a word that is very new to me (learned it just now), so I don't know how to use it optimally. I found out about this word through google translate (I know, it is not reliable, but I google every translated word afterwards to check if they're correct or fitting).

The word I was trying to translate is skimte, a Norwegian word. It means to "make something out". Like when something is far away, and you can barely see it. Or if something is shrouded in darkness, making it barely visible. Now, could discern be used in such a situation? I know it's hard for you to answer this since most of you aren't norwegian, but I tried to explain the word as good as possible.

Here's the sentence I want to use it in.

I could just about discern the royal carriages travelling on the gravel road.

So, is this "acceptable" use of discern?

  • 'Make out' would be the usual choice except in very formal settings. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 30 '18 at 8:31

Discern can refer to both the physical act of sight and observation, and to interpretation of what has been seen. I believe in your example that you're talking about the physical act of sight.

One of the examples given for discern by MW is:

barely able to discern the garden gate through the mist

Which is quite similar to your example.

So yes, discern would be an appropriate word.

  • I'd say 'barely able to discern the garden gate through the mist' is formal/idiomatic whereas 'I could just about discern the royal carriages travelling on the gravel road' is formal/borderline idiomatic. 'Make out' is the idiomatic choice. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 30 '18 at 8:29

I think your sentence is grammatically correct, however it sounds stiff and formal. Which does not match with the informal sounding "just about". So I would use "recognize" in its place, or drop the "just about", or replace them with "vaguely" if you need, but I feel dropping the adverbs altogether best. Or, use "almost" in place of "just about", to qualify the degree of "discernment". But then again, I'm "just about" half decent in my own usage.

  • but in "barely able to discern" able is the verb and the infinitive verbal "to discern" becomes a modifier/adverb – Clem Jun 29 '18 at 16:56
  • 1
    Not so; 'able' is an adjective there. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 30 '18 at 8:26

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