My nine-year-old daughter asked me a grammar question the other day that stopped me in my tracks: “When do you use ‘in spite of’ and ‘despite’?
I honestly had to stop and think about it. Despite being an author, corporate trainer and former-journalist no-one has ever asked me that question – not even in my business-writing workshops. My nine-year-old on the other hand, has been labelled ‘a slow reader,’ by her Year 4 teacher.
The consensus is that the terms are interchangeable. ‘Despite’ is perhaps more elegant because it is one word rather than three. When I’m editing copy I get a buzz out of reducing the number of words without changing the meaning. It’s the same satisfaction some people might get from weeding a garden; it allows the flowers to shine without being crowded out by thistles and nettles.
But back to the prepositions ‘in spite of’ and ‘despite’. You can say: “Despite her sprained ankle she finished the race.” Alternatively: “In spite of a sprained ankle she finished the race.” There’s no difference in meaning. However, some people get confused and write ‘inspite’ – when there’s no such word.
What I love about my daughter’s question though, is that in spite of her supposedly low reading status in the classroom, she is an assiduous listener and collector of words and idioms. She’ll try out a phrase even if it doesn’t fit the situation exactly, just because she likes the sound of it.
According to the Reggio Emilio Early Learning philosophy there are eight types of intelligence, including spatial, linguistic, physical, interpersonal and musical. It saddens me that our education system only recognises and nurtures a narrow band of these skills.
What’s important is that despite our talent, skills, educational standard or professional status we will only improve and learn when we ask the right questions and keep an open child-like mind when listening to the response.