As you learn more about the English Language, you may wonder what the distinction is between “desert island” and “deserted island” or if there is one. We often see both of these terms, and it’s helpful to know the difference.
“Desert island” is the more recognizable of the two terms and refers to an uninhabited tract of land or isolated location, either in the figurative or literal sense. “Deserted Island” refers more specifically to an island that was inhabited but whose inhabitants have abandoned it.
This article will explore the meaning of both terms in question, and we will delve into when and how to use them. We will also expand upon some instances in classic texts and popular culture depicting “desert islands.” If you’d like to know the correct usage of these words, read on.
What Does “Desert Island” or “Deserted Island” Mean?
A “desert island” simply means an island where no people live. The term “desert” — instead of only referring to a hot, sandy region as the noun “desert” suggests — can also be an archaic form of “deserted,” meaning uninhabited. A “deserted island” specifically refers to an island that was populated but is now empty.
Many dictionaries define “desert island” as a small, tropical island where nobody lives. This definition uses the literal meaning of the noun adjunct “desert” to describe a hot, arid area.
An “island” is specifically a tract of land surrounded by water. The term often operates figuratively to denote something isolated. Therefore a “desert island” is both uninhabited and isolated.
The Etymology of “Desert” and “Deserted”
Both words stem from the Latin word “desertum,” meaning “thing abandoned,” and date back to the 12th century. The original definition of a wasteland or barren area has remained with both words, although the idea of “desert” being a waterless area came about in Middle English (source).
The term “desert island,” meaning one that was uninhabited, appears in the records in the 1600s.
As language has evolved, many individuals have begun to use “deserted island” as an alternative to the original term “desert island” so as to not confuse their listeners with the idea of an island characterized by its arid (desert-like) conditions.
Is It Grammatically Correct to Say “Desert Island” and “Deserted Island”?
Both of these phrases are grammatically correct. Lexicographers recognize “desert island” as a noun phrase, so you can find it in most dictionaries. Meanwhile, “deserted island” is simply a phrase that includes an adjective and noun.
In the term “desert island,” the word “desert” functions as a noun adjunct, which means that it behaves like an adjective (source). In this case, the noun “desert” modifies the noun “island.”
Whether we use “desert” to mean uninhabited or having characteristics of the desert, we are using it adjectivally.
When we say “deserted island,” then “deserted” is the adjective that describes the noun. In this case, “deserted” is a participial adjective because it takes the same form as the past participle of the verb (source). Here, we are using the meaning of the verb — to abandon — as an adjective.
For more on this tricky topic, read our article “‘Desert’ or ‘Deserted’: What’s the Difference?”
How Do You Use “Desert Island” or “Deserted Island”?
We use “deserted island” very specifically to describe an island that people have abandoned. Of course, we can use “desert island” the same way, but this term can also operate figuratively to describe someone or something isolated.
The term “deserted island” has only one definition — it refers to a tract of land surrounded by water and is uninhabited. “Deserted” simply means having no people in it (source).
The term “desert island” has more scope because it has literal and figurative meanings. The literal meaning is exactly what someone wrote, while the figurative meaning is something it suggests or implies (source). In the case of “desert island,” we use the term metaphorically to suggest a lonely or desolate place.
When Can You Use “Desert Island” or “Deserted Island”?
You can use “desert island” when referring to an uninhabited tract of land or in the figurative sense to describe an isolated feeling. In contrast, you can use “deserted island” when talking about an island that is no longer inhabited.
Both are noun phrases, which means that they consist of a noun (“island”) and a dependent word or words (“desert” or “deserted”).
The dependent words give specific information about the noun, and together they behave just like a noun that we can further modify with another adjective. We could, for instance, say “the remote desert island” or “the barren, deserted island.”
In What Context Can You Use “Desert Island” or “Deserted Island”?
Context is so important in English, and it’s important to understand which words are appropriate at the right time.
When speaking of someone marooned on an island, either literally or figuratively, we would choose “desert island.” However, when referring to a previously inhabited island, we would choose “deserted island.”
There is only one use for “deserted island,” so it’s easy to know that if you aren’t describing that specifically, you should choose “desert island.” Most dictionaries list “desert island” as a noun separately because it is such a recognizable noun phrase.
When Not to Use “Desert Island” or “Deserted Island”
When referring to a once populated island whose population has now abandoned it, you should not choose “desert island.” Likewise, when referring to an uninhabited island in a hot region covered in sand, “deserted island” would also be the incorrect choice.
Also, if you are using the term literally and the piece of land you are referring to is not smaller than a continent and entirely surrounded by water, you should not use the term “island.” There are countless islands worldwide, ranging from tiny pieces of land to enormous landmasses.
Using “Desert Island” or “Deserted Island” in a Full Sentence
To fully understand how and when to use these terms, it’s best to consider how they operate in full sentences.
The most common use of the term “desert island” is in reference to an island on which someone is marooned in the middle of the ocean somewhere. The sentences below show the use of this context.
- What three items would you bring if you were castaway on a desert island?
- That would be an excellent bit of advice if you were stuck on some desert island.
- They rescued her after she spent years surviving on a desert island.
- Do you know anyone who would join you on a desert island?
- The show Lost takes place on a desert island.
The second use of the term is in reference to feeling alone or secluded on a desert island in the figurative sense. The following sentences illustrate this use in context.
- He lived on a desert island in all his loneliness.
- She was a desert island unto herself.
- We spent the day on our desert island in the coffee shop.
We use the term “deserted island” when referring to an island no longer inhabited by humans, as we’ve shown in the sentences below.
- The deserted island still showcased a few remnants of human life.
- A well-trained aircrew saved the last of the deserted island’s inhabitants.
- New forms of plant life slowly overtook the deserted island.
The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) lists 471 references to “desert island” compared with just 183 uses of “deserted island” (source). These frequency lists capture the top 60,000 words in the corpus.
What Can You Use Instead of “Desert Island” or “Deserted Island”?
To avoid confusion, it is sometimes preferable to choose a synonym instead. For example, when you want to avoid using “deserted,” you could use any of these adjectives together with “island.”
- Desolate island
- Isolated island
- Lonely island
- Remote island
- Secluded island
- Distant island
- Uninhabited island
- Neglected island
- Vacant island
If you wanted to avoid using “island,” you could use any of the synonyms above together with the following synonyms for “island.” However, there might be some geographic variations in these terms, so you must understand their exact definition to use them appropriately.
- Atoll (a ring-shaped coral reef)
- Archipelago (group of small islands)
- Islet (small island)
- Enclave (part of a country surrounded by another country)
- Landmass (large, solid area of land)
Distinguishing Parts of Speech: Verbs, Adjectives, and Participial Adjectives
As we have examined these two terms, you will have noticed that it’s essential to grasp what parts of speech are involved when choosing how to use them and even in what context to use them. So let’s examine what parts of speech we can identify in “desert island” and “deserted island.”
A quick recap will remind you that there are eight main parts of speech in English: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, determiners, conjunctions, and prepositions. The table below summarizes their roles.
|Part of speech||Role||Example|
|Noun||Naming word||Dog, Boy, House|
|Verb||Action word||Run, Swim, Desert|
|Adjective||Describes a noun or pronoun||Blue, Big, Deserted|
|Adverb||Describes how the action was done||Quickly, Recently, Kindly|
|Pronoun||Substitute for noun or noun phrase||He, She, It|
|Determiner||Reference to noun||Her, His, The|
|Conjunction||Joins two clauses||And, Because, So|
|Preposition||Links noun phrases||On, By, With|
As we’ve already mentioned, “desert” can be a noun or a verb depending on how the writer uses it. If we are naming something, we will use the noun “desert,” which refers to a sandy, arid area with very little vegetation.
However, if we refer to an action, we would use the verb “to desert,” which means to leave or abandon someone or something. Here, our choice will depend on the tense we use: we use “desert” in the present tense and “deserted” for the past tense or past participle.
When we examine the terms “desert island” and “deserted island,” both “desert” and “deserted” behave like an adjective in that they modify or describe the noun “island.” However, they both behave slightly differently.
In this case, “desert” is a noun adjunct, functioning adjectivally to describe the noun it precedes. Interestingly, Merriam-Webster lists “desert” as an adjective, but British-English dictionaries such as The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries and The Cambridge Dictionary only list “desert” as a noun or verb.
“Deserted” is a participial adjective, meaning that it is an adjective that takes the same form as the past participle of the verb.
This should make it easier whether you mean to choose “desert island” or “deserted island” and which context is the right one for each.
Desert Islands in Classical Literature and Popular Culture
Both “desert islands” and “deserted islands” often appear in novels, plays, and even magazine publications. Writers often portray desert islands as idyllic and heavenly. Human populations on desert islands are usually at a minimum.
Desert islands also frequent novels, including Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson, and JM Coetzee’s Foe. Additionally, popular culture often explores the idea of desert islands, such as in the movie Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks, or reality television shows such as Survivor.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
While these examples all deal with literal desert islands, the stories also explore the metaphorical concept of a desert island and the loneliness and isolation that accompanies that.
In summary, we can see that the more common term is “desert island,” but there are scenarios in which “deserted island” is actually the more appropriate choice.
The term “deserted island” has only one literal meaning, but “desert island” has both literal and metaphorical definitions and can be used in many contexts. However, you will most likely choose “desert island” unless you specifically refer to an abandoned piece of land surrounded by water.
Desert islands have fascinated mankind for centuries, and the idea has made its way into literature and popular culture. If you imagine yourself as an island isolated in the sea, you will understand how the term’s figurative use creates such a poignant metaphor.