Chomiji (chomiji) wrote in fandom_grammar,

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Answer: Despite vs. In Spite of

darklight90 has asked us What is the difference between "despite" and "in spite of"?

We'll be helped in our exploration of these close cousins by the cast of Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

As a preposition, despite means "without being affected by" (Oxford Dictionaries):

Despite Mervyn's irritating prattle, Lucien managed to find the relevant passage in Chesterton's The Man Who Was October.

In spite of is also used prepositionally and means "although one did not want or expect to do so":

Nuala looked askance at Mervyn, who was lounging in the doorway from kitchen corridor to the great hall. "I'd like to get this room in order before Lord Morpheus returns," she said.

"Who's stoppin' ya?" said Mervyn, apparently oblivious of his presence as an obstacle. Nuala smiled in spite of herself.

The phrase can also mean "without being affected by the particular factor mentioned":

Delirium suddenly broke apart into a cloud of dead-white moths, and Barnabas shivered in spite of the heat of the August day.

That definition looks an awful lot like the definition for despite, doesn't it? In fact, the two are essentially the same.

The Oxford site tells us that the word "spite" is a shortened form of the noun despite, which used to mean "contempt." The original word came through Old French from the Latin despectus: "looking down on." To act "in spite of" something means that you find that thing negligible, or not worth considering. This is a milder meaning than the original idea of contempt for, or looking down on, that thing.

In the first example, Lucien likely does, in fact, look down on the earthy Mervyn's idle chatter, but what's most important is that it doesn't affect his research. In the second one, Nuala is probably irritated by Mervyn, but the humor of the situation overcomes her annoyance: her own mood is temporarily less important, and so she smiles. In the final example, Barnabas finds the eerie spectacle of his mistress' transformation so disturbing that the torrid weather becomes insignificant.

At this point, you may be wondering how to decide which form to use. In formal writing, there is a slight preference for despite. The site Daily Writing Tips, for example, says that both The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Style Guide advise using the shorter form. If what you are writing is not formal and you happen to prefer in spite of for a particular sentence, there is no real reason to avoid it.

Finally, you may also be thinking about the noun spite, which can mean "a desire to harm or offend" or perhaps "a grudge":

A simple person might assume that the whole calamity that had befallen the Dreaming was caused by a woman's spite, mused Daniel, but that was far too mild a word for what his mother must have felt.

You can think of this as a sibling of both despite and in spite of because it comes from the same roots. Spite has gone its own way since then, however, and its use in the phrase in spite of doesn't have much to do with its current meaning.


Tags: !answer, author:chomiji, language:word origins, word choice:similar words

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