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“Desert” or “Deserted”: What’s the Difference?

Some writers incorrectly treat “desert” and “deserted” as exchangeable words. Students learning English can also get confused with the different meanings and uses of the two. So the question arises: what is the difference between “desert” and “deserted”?

You can use “desert” as a noun or verb, while “deserted” is only the past tense and past participle of “desert” or a participial adjective. A “deserted place” is one where everybody has left, while a “desert place” refers to a location where few if any people live or a desolate place, such as an area with an arid climate.

To explain the differences, we’ll examine the meanings of the two words and use sentence examples to indicate how and in what contexts you can use them. We’ll also explain why students sometimes find it difficult to differentiate between “desert” and “deserted.”  

What Do “Desert” and “Deserted” Mean?

To make it easy for students of English to understand the meaning of and the difference between “desert” and “deserted,” especially when we use them adjectivally, teachers often use the “island explanation.” In this explanation, they use “desert” and “deserted” to describe a type of island.

What Does “Desert” Mean Adjectivally?

In the island example, the noun phrase “desert island” means an island that is desolate and not permanently inhabited (source). Technically, “desert,” in this case, functions as a noun adjunct, a noun that acts like an adjective (source). The noun “desert” modifies the noun “island.”

When we say “desert island,” we generally refer to an island that has characteristics of the desert, such as sparse vegetation and a warm climate.

Interestingly, although all dictionaries list “desert” as a noun, they are inconsistent in listing it as an adjective. Thus, it’s safer to say that it’s a noun adjunct that implies the attributes of a desert to the noun that it qualifies. 

What Does “Deserted” Mean Adjectivally?

In this island example, a “deserted island” means an island that once was populated or inhabited but whose inhabitants left or deserted it.

In both instances, the islands are empty now, but the reasons why they are empty are different. To get more information regarding this “Island comparison,” read “Should We Say ‘Desert Island’ or ‘Deserted Island’?

How Do You Use “Desert” and “Deserted”?

To make the differentiation between “desert” and “deserted” easier, let’s look at the basic usages of these two words. We will discuss the usage and possible meanings of the two words as nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Remember that you can never use “deserted” as a noun. So, when you need one of the two words to act as a noun, it can only be “desert.”

When Can You Use “Desert” as a Noun?

You can use “desert” in many ways as a noun. Let’s discuss a few possibilities.

The noun desert means “wasteland,” “wilderness,” “barren area,” “a place where nobody has ever lived,” or “a place where you think it is not possible or worthwhile to live.” The most common use of “desert” as a noun refers to a large area, often in hot regions, with almost no water, trees, or plants as a desert.

The noun can also function in reference to a geographical area, such as the “Sahara Desert.”

In What Context Can You Use “Desert?”

You can also use “desert” as a metaphor to describe a place or situation that is desolate or lonely. You could, for instance, refer to a high-rise apartment building in the center of town as a building sitting in a desert of concrete. 

Using “Desert” in a Full Sentence

Consider the sentences below, which show various contexts where you can use “desert” as a noun.

  • A desert is a place with very low rainfall.
  • The Sahara Desert is one of the driest places on the globe.
  • She felt lost in a desert of loneliness.
Image by Carlos Leret via Unsplash

When Can You Use “Deserted” and “Desert” as  Verbs?

The verb “desert” means to abandon something or somebody. Let’s consider it in the 12 basic tenses.

Present simpleHe deserts his family to go to Europe. 
Present continuousHe is deserting his family to go to Europe.
Present perfectHe has deserted his family and gone to Europe.
Present perfect continuousHe has been deserting his family every year and going to Europe.
Past simpleHe deserted his family to go to Europe.
Past continuousHe was deserting his family when he went to Europe.
Past perfectHe had deserted his family before going to Europe.
Past perfect continuousHe had been deserting his family every year since 2015.
Future simpleHe will desert his family to go to Europe.
Future continuousHe will be deserting his family when he goes to Europe.
Future perfectHe will have deserted his family when he goes to Europe.
Future perfect continuousHe will have been deserting his family for 15 years when he goes to Europe next week.

As you can see, we use either “desert” or “deserted,” depending on the tense.

In What Context Can You Use “Desert” as a Verb?

As a verb, “desert” can refer to various “abandoning actions,” including the following.

Departing a place to leave it emptyBecause of the drought, the farmers and their families desert their farms to find temporary work in the cities.

After the hurricane, the inhabitants of the little village deserted their wrecked homes.
Leaving somebody, never to come back againShe worries that her angry son will desert her and never return if he emigrates now.

Her husband deserted her years ago, and she has never seen him again.
Stop supporting something that you’ve been supportingThe newspaper’s price rise will cause even loyal readers to desert in great numbers. 

Their clients deserted them after the unprofessional way they treated them.
Experiencing that a skill that you normally have suddenly disappearsI’m worried my confidence will desert me because I’ve lost the last three games. 

After the stroke, my short-term memory just deserted me.
Leave your job, especially in the armed forces, without permissionIf you desert this job, your work record will show that you’ve left without permission.

He deserted his post when he couldn’t find anyone to help him.

Using “Desert” and “Deserted” in Full Sentences

Consider the sentences below, which show various contexts where you can use “desert” and “deserted” as verbs.

  • After the rebellion, his troops deserted him, and he lost all further battles.
  • We can’t understand why she has to go away and desert a comfortable life.
  • Strange sounds came from the old house that had been deserted.

When Can You Use ”Deserted” and “Desert” as Adjectives?

As adjectives, “desert” and “deserted” have different meanings. We’ll discuss a few contexts.

Using “Desert” as an Adjective

While it’s technically a noun adjunct, you can use “desert” adjectivally to describe various situations, including the following:

Describing a place sparsely populated by humans or unpopulated.His great ambition is to settle on a desert island where nobody else has ever been.

Because the volcano has always been unsafe for human settlement, it is a desert mountain in the middle of the forest.
Describing a place situated in a desert. People often think of Las Vegas as a desert town because it is surrounded by barren land.

Using “Deserted” as a Participial Adjective

Grammarians refer to “deserted” as a participial adjective because it follows the same form as the participle. As an adjective, “deserted” always describes something empty and/or abandoned, as shown in the examples below (source).

A temporary emptinessHe walked home at 2 in the morning through the deserted streets of the neighborhood.”
A place forsaken by the owner or inhabitantsThe deserted house is overgrown with plants and looks spooky.
An unfrequented or lonely placeThe victim was lured to a deserted spot.
A place that’s much less crowded than normalAs a result of the COVID restrictions, you’ll find many deserted shopping malls during the evenings.

Using “Deserted” in Full Sentences

Let’s now look at full sentences that show the use of “desert” and “deserted” functioning as adjectives.

The strange sounds came from the deserted old house. 

It was light enough to see a long way in the deserted street at night.

She enjoyed walking in the deserted area next to the river when the sun was setting.

After the tsunami, many neighborhoods that had housed hundreds of people were deserted.

The expedition members want to determine whether someone can live on this desert island.

The desert town is now deserted.

What Can You Use Instead of “Desert” or “Deserted?”

To prevent confusion, it is sometimes better to use a synonym instead of “desert” or “deserted” when you want to describe something specifically. We list some of the most common synonyms for your convenience (source).

  • Barren
  • Isolated
  • Lonely
  • Desolate
  • Neglected
  • Empty
  • Uninhabited
  • Vacant

When Not to Use “Desert” or “Deserted?”

The most obvious place not to use “desert” is when you should rather use “dessert.” Although we may pronounce these two words the same, they have nothing in common regarding their meaning.

A dessert is the last course of a meal and is often sweet, like a cake. The word “dessert” also came from French, like “desert,” but from a totally different word. It came from the French word “desservir,” which means “to clear the table” (source).

The word emerged because a host would bring out the dessert after removing the dinner dishes.

Students sometimes ask whether it is grammatically correct to say “the community reached out to the deserted by assisting with temporary housing.” Here “deserted” functions as a noun, which is not grammatically correct. The word “deserted” requires a subject. 

However, we could rewrite this as “the community reached out to the deserted children by assisting with temporary housing. “Deserted” has to describe a noun and is not a noun in itself. 

The Challenge of Distinguishing “Desert” and “Deserted”

It is challenging to differentiate between “desert” and “deserted” because, although they each have distinctive meanings and uses, they are so closely related.

Shared Etymological Roots

They share etymological roots from the Latin word “desertus,” which means “deserted” or “abandoned” (source).

Desertus” comes from “de,” meaning “not,” plus “serere,” meaning “to join.” Thus, both “desert” and “deserted” originally referred to a place “disconnected” from the population. They entered the English language in the 1200s. The verb “to desert,” meaning “to abandon,” didn’t enter English until about 400 years later (source).

Distinguishing Parts of Speech: Nouns, Verbs, and Adjectives

As you will have seen, the most important part of deciding whether to use “desert” or “deserted” is to know what part of speech you are using. As soon as you understand the role of the various parts of speech, it’s easier to know which word to use.

In the case of “desert” vs. “deserted,” it is clear that if we are naming something, then we use the noun “desert.” 

On the other hand, if we are using the verb “to desert,” then our choice will depend on what tense we are using; we would choose “desert” for the present tense and “deserted” for the past tense or as a past participle.

When it comes to adjectives, it’s slightly more complicated. Insofar as an adjective modifies a noun, then both “desert” and “deserted” play this role but each of them in a slightly different way. 

As a noun adjunct, “desert” functions adjectivally to describe the noun it precedes. “Deserted” is a participle adjective, meaning it takes the same form as an adjective and a participle. 

It should now be easier to work out whether we are using “desert” as a noun or verb or whether we are using it adjectivally. This will help us to understand context too. This article was written for

Many other words in English can function as all these parts of speech, such as “clean,” “light,” or “free,” so it’s essential to understand what role the word you are choosing plays in your sentence.

Final Thoughts

Because of the different uses, contexts, and nuances of “desert” and “deserted,” the two words often confuse English language students. Although “desert” and “deserted” came from similar roots, the two words have adopted specific meanings over time. 

Both “desert” and “deserted” refer to emptiness in some way, but it’s essential to understand what role they’re playing in the sentence as well as the context of the sentence itself so that we can be clearer on what specific meaning we should take. 

If you are not sure whether to use “desert” or “deserted,” it’s often best to use a synonym to convey your message with clarity.