Disparate vs Desperate

By Ali Hale

Two words that sometimes get confused are “disparate” and “desperate”.

They have quite different meanings, but they can sound very similar in some accents, and if you’re using autocorrect, you might find that you get the wrong one.

What Does “Disparate” Mean?

Disparate is an adjective that refers to things that are separated in some way – and perhaps even incompatible with one another. Dictionary.com defines it as meaning “distinct in kind; essentially different; dissimilar.”

It comes from the Latin “disparatus”, meaning “separate.”

Here are a couple of examples of “disparate” in use:

Perhaps Labour’s most significant proposal in its manifesto was for a national education service (NES), a scheme to join up the disparate elements of education, providing free lifelong learning from nurseries through schools to universities and adult education.

(From The Guardian)

To understand patriotism’s uneasy place in Nigeria, you have to go back to 1914 when the Southern and Northern protectorates and Lagos Colony were brought together to form a single country.

In the process about 250 disparate groups – including the three major ones of Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba – were welded together in a “Tower of Babel” of sorts.

(From the BBC.)

While “disparately” is also a valid word (it’s an adverb), it’s rare to come across it being used.

What Does “Desperate” Mean?

The word “desperate” is, like “disparate”, an adjective.

“Desperate” has the same route as the word “despair”, and it is used for several different purposes:

  • Wanting something very badly (e.g. “I’m desperate for a cup of tea.”)
  • Indicating that something is very serious or bad (e.g. “Our situation is desperate. We are completely out of supplies.”)
  • Being willing to do something risky or extreme (e.g. “The rescuers took desperate measures to reach the stranded children.”)

As an adverb, “desperately” can be used to modify a verb (e.g. “She desperately needed to sleep.”)

Here are three examples of “desperate” in use:

In a study of 872 acquisitions made by 401 firms, the authors found that managers who were desperate to show growth—as measured by their firm’s weak growth as compared to that of comparable companies–were more likely to overpay for an acquisition.

(From Inc.com)

If you approach your job search with the mindset “I don’t care what kind of job I get — I just need a job!,” that desperate energy will radiate from you in waves and everyone around you will feel it.

(From Forbes.com)

Period poverty is pushing women in Zimbabwe to desperate measures – and the homeless are bearing the brunt of the crisis, according to campaigners.

(From The Independent)

If you’re struggling to know which you should use at any given time, remember:

  • Disparate can usually be replaced in a sentence with the word “separate”.
  • Desperate can usually be replaced in a sentence with the word “wanting” or the word “extreme”, depending on how it’s being used.

In most situations, especially in informal writing such as social media posts, the word you want is likely to be “desperate”. Don’t trust your autocorrect if you end up with “disparate” instead.

Desperate vs Disparate Quiz

For each of the following sentences, select the word that makes the most sense:

  • 1. When I finally finished the run, I was [desperate/disparate] for a drink of water.

    desperate
    disparate
  • 2. This program of study combines several [desperate/disparate] elements.

    desperate
    disparate

  • 3. In these terrible times, we must take [desperate/disparate] measures.

    disparate
    desperate
  • 4. I am [disparately/desperately] keen to work in the tourism industry.

    desperately
    disparately

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