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Desert and Dessert

Commonly Confused Words

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Desert and Dessert

Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent (1998)

A desert (stress on the first syllable) is a dry, sandy region or wasteland. The verb desert (stress on the second syllable) means "to abandon." (When people get what they deserve, they receive their "just deserts." See Usage Notes, below.)

A dessert is a sweet dish served at the end of a meal.

Examples:

  • "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand." (Milton Friedman)

  • "If you desert me, Nelly, there is no such thing as friendship in the world." (G.B. Shaw, The Irrational Knot)

  • "Work is the meat of life, pleasure the dessert." (B. C. Forbes)

Corrections:

"A correction in this space on Wednesday misspelled the name of the city where the Fords' church was located. It is Palm Desert, not Palm Dessert."
("No Pomp for a President in Repose," The New York Times, January 6, 2007)

Usage Notes:

  • "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 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, 1994)


  • "[Write] just deserts not just desserts, unless you are saying you only want pudding."
    (David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon, Guardian Style, 3rd ed. Guardian Books, 2010)

Practice:

(a) With eggs, flour, milk, sugar, and butter in the house, you can always make _____.

(b) "Man is a complex being who makes _____ bloom and lakes die." (G. B. Stern)

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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