• 3-minute read
  • 9th May 2016

Word Choice: Dessert vs. Desert

We’ve all been there. You’re in a restaurant with friends. You finish your main course and order a “desert.” Moments later, the waiter returns and buries your table beneath a truckload of sand, ruining the evening for everyone.

Not dessert.
Mmmm… sand. [Photo: Simon A. Eugster]
OK, this probably hasn’t happened in real life. But that’s because “desert” and “dessert” are pronounced differently enough that you wouldn’t normally mix them up.

Written down it’s different, and we see these terms confused on a regular basis. Sometimes this is a just a typo (so remember to proofread!) but it can also be an issue with spelling, so make sure you know the difference between these words.

Dessert (Sweet and Delicious)

This is the easy one, since “dessert” only has one meaning. Specifically, it’s used to describe sweet food eaten after the main part of a meal:

For dessert, I ate my own body weight in ice cream.

As such, you should only use “dessert” in reference to food.

Getting hungrier now...
Getting hungrier now…

You sometimes see people write “just desserts,” but this is actually a mistake; the correct term is “just deserts,” meaning “that which is deserved.”

By comparison, “just desserts” would mean something like “only puddings,” which is only useful if you run a diner for people with a sugar addiction.

Desert (Dry and Sandy)

The most common use of “desert” is to identify a place with little to no rainfall, typically somewhere hot and sandy:

The Mojave is the hottest desert in the United States.

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It really is very, very hot there. [Photo: Theschmallfella]
We also use this sense of “desert” as an adjective, such as when describing something associated with the desert:

From his campaign in North Africa during WWII, Rommel became known as the “Desert Fox.”

Meanwhile, the verb “desert” is pronounced a little differently despite having the same spelling. This sense of “desert” means “to abandon”:

The prisoner got away after the guard deserted his post.

Dessert or Desert?

It’s easy to avoid mistakes with “dessert” and “desert” as long as you remember that “dessert” only has one meaning (it becomes even easier if you imagine the double-“s” in “dessert” stands for “something sweet”).

Once you’ve ruled that out, whether you’re using “desert” as a noun or a verb, the spelling is the same. Just keep in mind that:

Dessert (noun) = The final course in a meal (“something sweet”)

Desert (noun) = A dry, sandy area of land

Desert (verb) = To leave or abandon

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