desert vs. dessert

What is the difference between desert and dessert?

This pair of words causes a lot of problems for writers because they have very similar spellings and pronunciations.
Desert has two primary meanings. As a noun, it is usually pronounced /ˈdɛzərt/ (with the stress on the first syllable) and means “a barren region devoid of vegetation, especially an arid region that has very little rainfall.” As a verb, it is
pronounced /dɪˈzɜrt/ (with the stress on the second syllable), and it means “to leave or abandon someone, something, or someplace” or “to forsake someone or something, especially in spite of a duty or responsibility.” For example:
  • “After spending a week camping in the desert, I gained a newfound appreciation for modern conveniences.”
  • “I can’t believe he deserted the fledgling company to go work for some giant corporation.”
  • “The soldier was held on charges of deserting his post.”
Dessert is pronounced the same way as the verb definition of desert: /dɪˈzɜrt/. It is only ever a noun, meaning “a sweet dish, typically served as the last course of a meal,” as in:
  • “Would you like ice cream or pudding for dessert?”

Spelling Tricks and Tips

Fortunately, there is a very common trick to determine which spelling to use:
  • We always want more dessert, which is why it has more S’s than desert.

“just deserts” vs. “just desserts”

While the two definitions of desert we already looked at are by far the most common, there is actually a third definition of the word. It is a noun (usually pluralized) meaning “something that is earned, deserved, or merited”; it has the same pronunciation as the verb form of the word, /dɪˈzɜrt/.
While not common in everyday speech and writing, this meaning of the word still survives in one phrase: just deserts, meaning “an outcome that one deserves, especially a punishment.” For example:
  • “The school bully got his just deserts when he was expelled for his behavior.”
It is a very common mistake to write this phrase as just desserts, due to the similarity in the two words’ spelling and their shared pronunciation, as well as because this meaning of deserts is very uncommon outside of this phrase. To remember this spelling, keep in mind that someone getting their just deserts is getting what they deserve—and they certainly don’t deserve dessert!
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