Desert vs. Dessert: Sweet Tips to Remember the Difference

There's a big difference between a desert and a dessert — much bigger than that little "s" in the middle! But how can you easily choose the right word? Keep reading for easy tips on how to tell the difference between the words desert vs. dessert.

desert vs dessert example with spelling tip desert vs dessert example with spelling tip

The Multiple Meanings of Desert

Of the two words, desert is the only one that you can use as multiple parts of speech. It can be a noun, and depending on the context, it can mean very different things and is even pronounced in different ways.

Using Desert as a Noun

One of the more common uses of the word desert is as a noun. It comes from the Latin desertum, which means "an abandoned thing" or "a wasteland." Its meaning in this context is:

desert (n; DEH-zert) - a biome on planet Earth that is characterized by barren land and by a lack of water and plant life

In this case, desert can describe a large expanse of sand or ice (such as Antarctica) where hardly anything can grow. You can use it in the following examples:

  • We were dehydrated and sunburned by the time we crossed the desert.
  • The Sahara is the biggest non-polar desert in the world.
  • Many animals, including camels and lizards, have adapted to the harsh conditions of the desert.

Using Desert as a Verb

Desert can also be a verb. It comes from the Latin desertus, and means:

desert (v; deh-ZERT) - to leave or abandon those who depend on you

You'll typically see this use in military or other official situations. Some examples of desert as a verb include:

  • The soldier was in trouble for deserting his post.
  • Paul swore that he'd never desert his family.
  • Just because I changed my mind doesn't mean I've deserted my values.

Using Desert as an Adjective

You can also use desert as an adjective, as in the phrase "desert island." The adjective form means:

desert (adj; DEH-zert) - an area that is unoccupied or desolate

It's based on the same Latin root as the other two meanings, which refer to an abandoned or lifeless place. Example sentences include:

  • Our lifeboat washed up on a desert island in the Pacific Ocean.
  • The severe drought left the riverbed looking like a desert wasteland.
  • We looked up and down the desert beach for survivors.

Serve Dessert as a Noun Only

Unlike desert, dessert only has one meaning. It comes from the French desservir, which means "to clear the table" (or literally, "unserving," as des- means "removing" and servir means "to serve.") Its only meaning is:

dessert (n; deh-ZERT) - sweet course served after a meal that can include cake, ice cream or cookies

There's nothing complicated about that, right? It's just the delicious dish that comes after all the plates are cleared from the table. However, dessert's common spelling as desert continues to cause problems for spellers everywhere. Examples of dessert in a sentence include:

  • What are you going to order for dessert?
  • Sherry is a popular type of dessert wine.
  • My brother's favorite dessert is a root beer float.

Fun Tips to Remember Desert vs. Dessert

So how can you keep these words straight? If you can remember their origins, you may notice how desertum has one "s," like desert, and desservir has two, like dessert. But if you need a quicker and more intuitive way to remember, try out these tips instead.

  • Think of the double "s" in dessert as "strawberry shortcake" — a popular dessert. (You can also think of the single "s" in desert as "sand.")
  • Would you rather have a second scoop of dessert or of desert? That's why dessert has a double "s" — everyone wants two scoops!
  • Feeling stressed? Dessert, which is stressed spelled backward, is much more helpful than a desert.
  • You're alone in the desert, just like the poor "s" in the middle of the word.
  • What do you use to eat dessert? A "silver spoon" — double "s" like dessert!
  • You've finished your dinner and you're reading for your "second serving" of dessert (double "s").

Just Deserts or Just Desserts?

A phrase that further confuses matters is the old saying "just deserts," which means "the appropriate punishment." You've probably heard it before, and know that it's pronounced "just deh-ZERTS," so it's easy to assume that it should be spelled "just desserts." But that doesn't make any sense if desserts only means "sweet treat!"

An old definition of desert is "consequence or punishment. "Just" in this case means "justice." So if someone has been served their "just deserts," they're not being served cake or pie. They've received the proper punishment for their crime.


Don't Desert Your Spelling Practice

Between word origins and the ever-changing nature of the English language, spelling can be hard to master. However, now that you know the key differences between desert and dessert, there's no stopping your spelling progress. Keep the lesson going with these tips on loose vs. lose. Or, stick with foods and explore the differences between supper vs. dinner.