We present a simple theoretical land-surface classification that can be used to determine the location and temporal behavior of preferential sources of terrestrial dust emissions. The classification also provides information about the likely nature of the sediments, their erodibility and the likelihood that they will generate emissions under given conditions. The scheme is based on the dual notions of geomorphic type and connectivity between geomorphic units. We demonstrate that the scheme can be used to map potential modern-day dust sources in the Chihuahuan Desert, the Lake Eyre Basin and the Taklamakan. Through comparison with observed dust emissions, we show that the scheme provides a reasonable prediction of areas of emission in the Chihuahuan Desert and in the Lake Eyre Basin. The classification is also applied to point source data from the Western Sahara to enable comparison of the relative importance of different land surfaces for dust emissions. We indicate how the scheme could be used to provide an improved characterization of preferential dust sources in global dust-cycle models.