Desert vs. Dessert: How to Choose the Right Word

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

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.

The first meaning, as an arid land, was borrowed from a Middle English word meaning just that: a desert. The sense meaning to abandon comes from a French word meaning to "disjoin." The final meaning comes from a Middle English and Old French word meaning "deserving of reward or punishment."

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 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.
  • Soldiers who desert their posts during wartime can be court-martialed because they have broken military law.
  • In fairy tales, the villains always receive their just deserts. They get what's coming to them.
  • After dinner, I set the table with dessert plates and sliced the blueberry pie for a sweet finale. 

How to Remember the Difference

Here are three tricks to remembering the difference between the two words:

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

"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 in 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)

Sources