Desert and Dessert

Commonly Confused Words

desert and dessert
"He was finding food in the desert," said Terry Pratchett. "In fact, he was even finding dessert in the desert" (The Last Continent, 1998). Stephen Swintek/Getty Images

There are good reasons why the nouns desert and dessert are two of the most frequently confused words in English: desert has more than one meaning and two different pronunciations. But you should be able to keep these words straight if you tell yourself that the two s's in dessert stand for "sweet stuff."

Definitions

A desert (stress on the first syllable) is a dry, sandy region or wasteland. The verb desert (stress on the second syllable) means to abandon or leave. (When people get what they deserve, they receive their "just deserts." See the idiom alert below.)

A dessert (stress on the second syllable) is a sweet dish served at the end of a meal.

Examples

  • "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand."
    (Milton Friedman)
  • "Bullies only pick on the weakest. They can't get you if you've got friends. And sometimes your friends desert you because they're frightened too, and they're so glad it's not them that's being picked on. But if there was a group of older pupils you knew you could go to, who would never desert you, do you know how much that would mean, sir?"
    (Cathy MacPhail, Run, Zan, Run. Bloomsbury, 2012)
  • "Jason cried until mother said he couldn't have any dessert for three days if he didn't stop."
    (William Faulkner, "That Evening Sun Go Down." The American Mercury, 1931)

Corrections

"A correction in this space on Wednesday misspelled the name of the city where the Fords' church was located. It is Palm Desert, not Palm Dessert."
("No Pomp for a President in Repose." The New York Times, January 6, 2007)

Usage Note

"This is really just a matter of paying attention to spelling. There are two nouns spelled desert. The first of these is the barren desert, and by reason of pronunciation, if no other, it seems seldom to be mistaken for the others. The second desert is related to deserve and is pronounced like dessert. It is frequently used as a plural, especially in the phrase just desserts (which one gets). Here we have the real spelling problem. We find desert in place of dessert from 1833 to 1985 (and we suspect we have not seen the last of it). And the opposite error--just desserts, as if chocolate cake or cherries jubilee were being substituted for what one deserves--has been detected by Bernstein 1962 in the New York Times, by Simon 1980 in Time, and by one of our editors in a 1986 'Bloom County' comic strip. Care is all that is needed here. Take your time, think, trust your dictionary, and reform your ways (if need be)."
("Desert, Deserts, Dessert," Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)

Idiom Alert

If you want to state that someone got the punishment (or reward) that they deserve, you could use the idiom "just deserts." In this idiom, deserts is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.

Practice Questions

  1. After dinner, I set the table with ________ plates and sliced up the blueberry pie. 
  2. The man spent weeks in the _______, where his access to water was limited.
  3. in fairy tales, the villain characters always receive their just ______. 

Answers

  1. dessert
  2. desert
  3. deserts