In British English, "sweets" can refer to candy or dessert. However, that's not the focus of this post. Instead, I'd like to discuss "sweets" as used in American English.

Some, perhaps many, Americans would deny "sweets" is a term current in American English. But the Merriam-Webster and American Heritage Dictionaries define one sense of "sweet" as "a sweet food", and offer example sentences such as "I'm trying to cut down on sweets."

Clearly, the term "sweets" is indeed used in American English. Much to my curiosity, however, is my observation-- correct me if I'm wrong, please-- that some Americans who accept "cut down on sweets" in reference to sweet foods in general, do not accept or interpret "a box of sweets" as a box of different kinds of sweet foods. Why is that?

To compound the situation, I've found some webpages that appear to consider 'sweets' as 'sweet foods':

  1. These baskets of sweets (cookies and pops) will certainly be a breath of fresh air to the traditional roses and cards. (https://bitesph.wordpress.com/)

  2. Valentine's Day Tower of Sweets. A delectable assortment in a beautiful Valentine's Day presentation. Chocolate Pralines, Chocolate Pretzels, Sea Salt Caramels, Southern Charms (chocolate covered glazed pecans) and assorted Chocolate Bear Claws. Tower arrives nicely wrapped with a lovely, hand-tied bow. No need for flowers here! (http://www.riverstreetsweets.com/product/Valentines-Day-Tower-of-Sweets/)

  3. A Container of Holiday Sweets. If you are like my mom during the holidays you will have a variety of sweets sitting around the house. Fill a container of holiday goodies to give to your hostess. (http://thepreppyplanner.weebly.com/events-blog/category/all/30)

"Sweets" on the above pages cannot refer to candy. I'm wondering whether the Americans here find the use in #1-3 natural.

If you are an American, I'd like to know how you feel about the above use of "sweets". Is it natural?

I'd appreciate your feedback.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Sep 4, 2016 at 4:17

3 Answers 3


I grew up in Oklahoma and Georgia, and the three examples you gave seem perfectly natural to me for describing sweet foods, not necessarily candy. I think though, that since boxes of candy have been such a common gift for a long time, many people still would think of "a box of sweets" to refer to candy, even though it is becoming more common to sell boxes of other kinds of sweets.

  • For you, does a box of sweets necessarily contain more than one kind of sweet food, much like "a basket of fruits" contains more than one kind of fruit? Would you refer to a box that contains only one kind of sweet food as a box of sweets?
    – Apollyon
    Sep 7, 2016 at 12:36

I, too, was raised in the Midwest in the 60's through 80's. Sweets would not have been used very often to mean "sweet foods", but rather as a quaint and somewhat archaic term for candies (usually hard candies, in particular). The term has fallen somewhat out of favor, I think, though if you use it in America I would expect you would be easily understood, even if you would be considered to have a somewhat colorful and idiosyncratic vocabulary. The advertising examples you give sound to my ear to be unusual, quaint, and quirky - which is probably the effect the businesses were going for.

When said in the context of "giving up sweets" for a diet in America, I don't think it is intended to describe candies in particular, or even foods per se, but rather sugar intake of any kind - it is describing more the sugar content rather than the specific set of foods. It is akin to saying they might need to "cut down on fats". One would not then talk about serving them a dinner "of fats", even if the food being served was fatty.

Given that, why don't Americans say they intend to "cut back on sugars" instead of sweets? Who knows?

  • But the examples I cited don't limit the reference of 'sweets' to candy. There are cookies and the like in the product descriptions. Do you think those examples are quaint, or downright wrong?
    – Apollyon
    Sep 7, 2016 at 12:26
  • Good point. To my ear, those sound quaint, so I suppose I was incorrect in limiting the term to candies in particular. In all of these contexts, it still sounds old-fashioned in a "fondly remembered good old days" sense. Sep 11, 2016 at 19:19

My view is from the Midwest, but I would guess the South would be more liberal in its usage.

Americans use sweets in a number of other contexts making its use for delectables less common. For instance:

  1. "Look at these sweet shoes." [Sort of in place of "cool"]

  2. "Sweet!" [Awesome]

  3. "Hi, sweetie."

I grew up down the road from a place called Sweet's Tin Shop, and I had no idea they sold circular tins of chocolates until I was about 18.

"I'm cutting back on sweets" is idiomatic. It is used by dieters meaning pretty much any food with high-calorie, low-nutrition unhealthiness [donuts, hard candy, chocolate, cakes, even ice cream].

Americans tend to avoid using words without a clear meaning. Because the use of sweets can refer to different types of foods ( hard candy, chocolate, donuts, etc.), Americans are likely to be more specific.

Still, in context, it would be understood.

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