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TWTS: Despite the odds, "despite" and "in spite of" manage to co-exist

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When it comes to English, sometimes we just can’t let go.

For instance, we no longer use the word “despite” to refer to an emotion. In spite of that, we’ve held on to it, despite the fact that we also have “in spite of.”

That brings us to this week’s question from our listener Khalil Katato, who got right to the point: “What’s the difference between ‘in spite [of]’ and ‘despite’?”

Not much.

These two words are historically related, with “despite” being the older of the two. The Oxford English Dictionary puts “despite” back as far as the late 1200s. When it came into English from French it meant “contempt” or “scorn.”

Around the same time, we start to see the phrase “in despite of” to mean “in defiance of” or “in contempt of.” By the 1500s this phrase had weakened to mean “notwithstanding.” The meaning stuck, though the “in” and the “of” were lost over time.

“Spite” goes back to the 1300s and is simply “despite” without the “de” syllable. In the same way we had the phrase “in despite of,” we also had “in spite of.” However, “in spite of” stayed intact as a phrase, and today it sits alongside “despite.”

In the case of two variants, the writers of usage guides will sometimes decide that only one is correct. Professor Anne Curzan thinks that if writers were going to pick one or the other, they’d probably say “in spite of” is less correct, mainly because it’s just a longer form of “despite.”

That’s not the case though. Usage guides generally say that “despite” and “in spite of” are interchangeable without criticizing either. Some of them will say that “despite” is preferable because it’s shorter, but they don’t say there’s anything wrong with “in spite of.”

In other words, just pick the one you like.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.