Something that keeps on coming up in my internal monologues is the issue of when to use despite and when to use in spite of. I didn’t know of any difference between the two, but there’ve been a lot of words that I didn’t know meant different things until I’d already spent years confusing them. (Thinking that jocular meant “having the traits of a jock” is foremost in my mind, but there’s also the flaunt/flout confusion that I was a victim of until midway through college.)
So what if I was making a fool of myself by confounding despite and in spite of as well? Nah, I figured, I’ve been using them interchangeably for 20-odd years. They couldn’t be different; I’d've noticed. But then I read an article containing this sentence:
“Despite, or perhaps in spite of, the screenings, an ad hoc coalition of more than a dozen disabilities groups held a conference call on the weekend to lay the groundwork for at least one protest in every state starting this week.”
Well, poop. Operating under the assumption that writer was not injecting her own internal word-choice debate into the beginning of the sentence, I concluded that there must be a difference between despite and in spite of. 20-odd years of confidence in my spite-usage down the drain.
I dutifully crawled the Internet, searching for the difference between them, desperately hoping to save myself a lampooning the next time I said one but meant the other. But as it turns out, no one else seems to believe they were different. I even checked the OED, where I was greeted with the following definition of despite: “In spite of.” Nothing more. All right, case closed; they’re the same.
My mind was set at ease for a solid couple of seconds. I hadn’t been making a fool of myself on this topic, hooray. But then I realized that what we have here is a full-fledged grammatical mystery. What could the writer have been thinking when she set up the opposition of despite and in spite of? Since they’re the same, might she have been thinking of some other phrase instead of in spite of? What could this mysterious phrase be?
If this were a proper detective story, I’d introduce a number of potential target phrases, and one by one whittle them down, excluding possibilities with a heartfelt rhetorical flourish before finally pointing my magnifying-glass-wielding hand, extending an accusatory finger, and naming the offender. But, c’mon, I write too long-windedly as it is. So let’s jump to the accusation: it was the writer (or the editor), with the backspace key, in the aforementioned sentence.
My guess is that in despite of was the target phrase, but then someone looked at that and said “Oops, that’s mixing my constructions,” and removed the de-. In despite of means “in defiance of, in order to spite”, which to me seems about what would be intended. I was completely unaware of the existence of this phrase, so if I’d been editing the story, I’d certainly have clipped off the de-, although I probably would have changed it to in order to spite or out of spite for. But that’s just picking nits. So thank you, stupid news article about a stupid movie; you actually taught me something about the English language.
Summary: despite and in spite of are interchangeable, but their combination in despite of means something else entirely.