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Desert vs. Dessert: How to Remember the Difference

What’s the difference between the word “desert” (with one “S”) and “dessert” (with a double “S”)? Well, it’s a dangerous distinction, because if you mix up these commonly confused words, you might get a mouth full of sand instead of cake!

Let’s see why, via some cute, hand-drawn cartoons by this English teacher and artist. Just as we did with “Below or Bellow?” these illustrations and explanations will help show how to tell desert vs. dessert apart…

Desert vs. Dessert
Desert vs. Dessert: Only one is yummy!

“Desert” Definitions and Spelling

The word “desert” (with one “S”) is most known for being a noun meaning: an expanse of sand or wasteland with little water or vegetation — except maybe some cacti. For example: the Sahara Desert gets just 3 inches of rainfall a year! This form of “desert” is pronounced: “DEH-zert” (with the emphasis on the first part, “DEH.”)

Here’s what’s confusing: “Desert” can also be a verb meaning to abandon someone or something and leave them all alone (usually in a shocking and abrupt manner) — but in this verb meaning of “desert,” it’s pronounced “deh-ZERT,” with the emphasis on the second half: ZERT.

An example sentence with “desert” as a verb would be: “I don’t want to desert you during our date, but if you’re not going to order dessert, I’m leaving!” Ah yes… that brings us to the word “dessert…”

Dessert spelling
A trick to remember the spelling of “Dessert.”

“Dessert” Meaning and Examples

The definition of the word “dessert” (noun) is: a sweet food item or course, often at the end of a meal. Examples of dessert might include cake, ice cream, pie, flan, pudding, jelly rolls, cookies… and oh my, my mouth is now watering! “Dessert” is pronounced: “duh-ZERT” — with the emphasis on “ZERT.”

The trick to remember the spelling of “dessert” is that you want TWO servings of delicious dessert foods, and so you want two servings of the letter “S” when you spell it. Another way to keep the words straight is to visualize that a desert is so hot and dry, only one “S” can grow there.

When Desert and Dessert Get Confusing

“Food Desert” vs. “Dessert Food”

Though it may seem that telling “desert or dessert” apart is now simple, once we have the definitions down, there are some aspects that make it more complex. Take, for example the term “food desert.”

A “food desert” is defined as a neighborhood that does not have solid access to nutritious food to purchase — often as a result of discrimination. This is confusing because a “dessert food” is something completely different: it’s a sweet treat to eat!

(Want more commonly confused words? Check out my articles and illustrations on “Weary vs. Wary,” and the always-perplexing Lier or Liar?”)

“Just Deserts” or “Just Desserts?”

Ready to get even more complex? You may have heard the term “just deserts,” meaning that someone got what they deserved. For example: “She was rude to everyone for years, but ultimately got her just deserts when she got trapped on a mountain peak and no one agreed to help her.”

Now, because it’s about getting something in the end, you may THINK that the spelling would be “just desserts,” since the dessert course comes at the end of the meal — but in fact the spelling is “just deserts” with one “S” because it’s derived from an older form of “desert” referring to what one deserves.

Sure you CAN use the spelling “just desserts,” but the only way it would be correct would be if you were saying you only wanted to eat cookies and cakes for your meal. I may have been an English teacher for 18 years, but it’s only now in researching this article that I see I’ve been spelling this phrase wrong my whole life!

Desert vs. Dessert in Sum

Clear now? Deserts are dry, sandy, or lonely, and dessert is so delicious that you want two helpings of everything — including the letter “S!” What are your thoughts after reading this article? Do share!

Want more commonly confused words? Check out “clothes vs. cloths,” “flies or flys,” “no one or noone,” and “loose vs. lose!”