Desert vs. Dessert: How to Choose the Right Word

Desert has three meanings and two pronunciations; dessert has just one of each

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 desert and dessert are two of the most frequently confused words in English. First, the only visual difference between them is the extra "s." Desert has three meanings and two pronunciations, while dessert has just one pronunciation and a single meaning that we all know and love.

How to Use 'Desert'

The noun desert (with stress on the first syllable) refers to a dry, sandy region or any wasteland. The verb desert (stress on the second syllable) means to abandon or leave. Also, when people get what they deserve, they are said to have received their just deserts, again with the second syllable stressed but pronounced like desserts.

The first meaning, as an arid land, came to Middle English from an Old French and Latin term, desertum, meaning just that: a desert. The sense meaning to abandon came from deserter, an Old French word that came from the Latin deserere, meaning to "disjoin." The final meaning came from deserte, a Middle English and Old French word meaning deserve.

How to Use 'Dessert'

A dessert (stress on the second syllable) is a sweet dish served at the end of a meal. The word comes from desservir, a Middle English and Old French word meaning "to clear the table," which is what happens after you finish that final course.

Examples

  • The man spent weeks lost in the desert, where his access to water was limited. Here desert is a noun meaning an arid land.
  • Soldiers who desert their posts during wartime can be court-martialed because they have broken military law. In this example, desert is a verb meaning to abandon or leave.
  • In fairy tales, the villains always receive their just deserts. This usage employs deserts as meaning what they deserve.
  • After dinner, I set the table with dessert plates and sliced the blueberry pie for a sweet finale. This sentence uses desserts, the sweet end-of-meal treat.

How to Remember the Difference

Here are some tricks for remembering the difference between the three very similar but very different words:

  • The "ss" in dessert stands for "sweet stuff" or "strawberry shortcake."
  • "Desserts" spelled backward is stressed, which is how some people feel after they gorge themselves on sweets.
  • The Sahara, perhaps the best-known desert in the world, starts with a single "s," the same as desert.

The word for the barren desert, because the stress is on the first syllable, is rarely mistaken for the other uses of the word, in which the second syllable is stressed. The third use of desert, which is pronounced like dessert, is usually a plural and is most commonly used in the phrase "just desserts."

Sources