Grammar PSA

This isn’t so much a grammar rant as a public service announcement—the proper phrase is just deserts and not just desserts.

I remember correcting this mistake in something I was editing, and someone up the line pointed out my correction as an error. I was quite surprised when I found out that lots of people—even many for whom grammar is a strength—spell this phrase incorrectly. So many people, in fact, that I felt the need to look it up to make sure I hadn’t been wrong all these years. And I said a little prayer of thanks to whichever English teacher ensured I knew how to correctly spell that phrase.

This isn’t really worth ranting about—in fact, it’s fairly understandable. When it’s driven into your head that desert has one s like sand, while dessert has two s’s like strawberry shortcake, you don’t really think about the rare exception which is spelled like desert but pronounced like dessert and pretty much only appears in melodrama. It doesn’t help that you’re most likely to see this phrase in writing as the cutesy and punny name of a cupcake shop: “Just Desserts!”

The way to think about it, though, is that deserts, as in just deserts, are the things that you deserve, which also has only one s. I suppose you could argue that your deserts actually are desserts because you deserve sweet things as a reward, but “just deserts” aren’t typically positive.

Conversational phrases like this, which often are heard more than read, can be confusing. All too often, they contain homophones that actually make some kind of sense even if you choose the wrong one. It’s almost like someone went out of their way to make these phrases more confusing. Now, that’s a conspiracy theory my son and my dad would both happily buy into!

In addition to just deserts, there are some other fun ones like free rein—it’s rein, as in letting up on the reins used to control a horse, and not reign, as in the reign of a laid back monarch. Interest is piqued, as in excited or aroused, and not peaked as it brought to the top (yeah…this one just doesn’t pass the 7th grade test—there would be much giggling).

The one that got me for years and years is toe the line. I would have argued up and down that it should be tow the line, because I imagined a game of tug-of-war where you have to play your role and pull on the rope like everyone else. That was a lot more obvious to me than the original meaning, which has to do with conforming to rules and standards at the starting line of a race. I still think tow the line makes more sense…

Anyway. That’s your grammatical public service announcement for today—it’s just deserts because it’s what you deserve. Go show ‘em how smart you are!

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