Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Spelling tips – desert and dessert

with 11 comments

Sahara desert in Tunisia and shadows of camels...
Image via Wikipedia

So, here we’re talking about ‘dessert’ (as in apple crumble) or desert (as in Sahara, or cultural).

Here’s how to remember the difference:

The double s in ‘dessert’ stands for ‘Sweet Stuff’.

Update: just desserts or just deserts?

From Guy Keleny in The Independent‘s Errors and Omissions column:

A news story published on Tuesday about the Monty Python court case quoted one of the counsel as follows: “These are not unpleasant shifty people trying to do people out of their just desserts.”

We are dealing here with three nouns. Two of the three are pronounced the same; two are spelt the same, but not the same two.

Dessert (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable): the last course of a meal. Desert (pronounced the same as the above): what you deserve. Encountered most often in the hackneyed phrase “just deserts”. Desert (stress on the first syllable): an arid region where nothing much will grow.

The whole thing is a mess, but professional writers ought to get it right. In the passage above, the correct spelling is “desert”.

(Also, see comments below on this.)

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11 Responses

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  1. A common mistake is to write that someone got his or her “just desserts.” It sounds right — as if a diner were served humble pie. But it should be “just deserts” — what the person justly deserves.

    Michael Farrell

    05/02/2010 at 3:47 pm

    • Hi, Michael — many thanks for pointing that out. That’s a really common error; look at the example below from, of all places, a BBC exam guide:

      “Compeyson – who is evil, like Orlick – is the cause of all the suffering in Great Expectations, and receives his just desserts in the end.”


      05/02/2010 at 3:53 pm

  2. There are, of course, scores of pastry and ice cream shops that use the phrase — we hope — punningly.

    Michael Farrell

    05/02/2010 at 4:12 pm

  3. Here’s a California professor of appellate law doling out sweet things to an undeserving litigant:

    “I applaud Justice Perluss and the rest of the panel for avoiding that temptation. Perhaps with the realization that, in the end, Mr. Sanai will surely get what’s coming to him. Karma. Destiny. Desserts. Whatever. In the end, I have faith that the law will get this one right. No need to shortcut it.”

    Michael Farrell

    23/02/2010 at 12:39 am

    • I like that: ‘doling out sweet things’. It’s such a common error, isn’t it?

      If anyone’s interested, here’s the definition of ‘deserts’ from Oxford Dictionaries.


      24/02/2010 at 10:00 am

  4. Correction from The New York Times:

    Because of an editing error, an article on Tuesday about a Supreme Court ruling misspelled a word in a phrase used by Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent.

    Justice Scalia pondered whether the defendant, convicted by the testimony of a witness he could not face in court, “has received his just deserts.” He did not use the often-seen, but erroneous spelling “just desserts.”


    02/03/2011 at 7:40 am

  5. The New York Times slips up again (maligning Justice Scalia’s spelling abilities again), as highlighted in the paper’s After Deadline column:

    “For all I know,’’ Justice Scalia concluded, “Bryant has received his just desserts.”

    What Scalia wrote, and what we meant, was “just deserts” — remember, it’s related to “deserve,” with one “s.”


    14/04/2011 at 11:27 am

  6. From the Guardian‘s ‘Corrections and clarifications’ column:

    Homophone corner: “Commander Ken Drury of the Flying Squad scoffed so much from the desert trolleys of Soho’s finest restaurants that he insisted Humphreys buy him an exercise bicycle to help him lose weight”

    …or maybe a camel would have been more useful?


    23/01/2012 at 2:29 pm

  7. Caption on a LIFE magazine online photograph depicting a scene from the film Spartacus:

    Marcellus the gladiator trainer receives his just desserts.

    …hmmm, looks more like a first course of hot stew to me.


    07/03/2012 at 5:42 pm

  8. I wonder why it is like that? In both words the ‘s’ is pronounced as a ‘z’. Yet in dessert you hear one z, whilst in desert you hear two z’s.


    09/07/2013 at 4:14 pm

    • Hi — that’s an interesting question. I think the spelling is more to do with the origin of each word rather than the pronunciation. ‘Desert’ is from late Middle English based on Old French ‘deserter’ and late Latin ‘desertare’, from the Latin ‘desertus’ meaning ‘left waste’.

      ‘Dessert’ is mid-16th century, from French ‘desservir’ meaning ‘clear the table’, based on ‘des’ (expressing removal) and ‘servir’ meaning ‘to serve’.

      (Thank you, Oxford Dictionaries :))


      09/07/2013 at 6:19 pm

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