August 18, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: in spite of or despite & in or among

Posted in among/in, despite/in spite of at 6:45 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I have a few WLUT questions for you. I am working on my grant, and a few things have jumped out at me.

1] Is it ‘in spite of’ or ‘despite’? My mind is telling me ‘despite.’

2) Does a disease occur ‘in population’ or ‘among population’?

Thank you, for now we have both of today’s tips.

Tip 1: in spite of or despite

I am especially glad to be writing about this because it provides me with an opportunity to tell you a cautionary tale about relying on the Internet for accuracy. On the Internet, the world is a democracy, and if enough people vote for something, we have to believe it is true, right? I read it on Wikipedia, so it has to be true, right? The entire site is devoted to just one subject, so they must have it right, right? The answers here, are no, no, and no, respectively.

The Internet is a wonderful thing, and for those of us who remember a time when there was no Internet, it is also a wondrous thing. However, as it expands, I worry about all of the information and the misinformation so handily available. There has been a lot of press lately about increases in plagiarism and reports that students don’t understand or simply reject the concept of plagiarism “because the information is already out there.” The concept of ownership of words and composed sentences and carefully crafted ideas is outdated to some. I worry that students don’t know how to evaluate all of the widely available information and make thoughtful judgments about its quality and accuracy. I expect that as the Internet grows, the amount of misinformation on the WWW will grow, too. I think that the only solution that doesn’t involve some draconian regulation or dictatorial intervention is to develop and encourage critical thinking to allow us to rationally evaluate the information we encounter. Figuring out how to hone this skill is not easy, but not to worry, if you google ‘critical thinking,’ you will get more than fifteen million hits. I’ll step down off my soap box now,  and try to not to trip over the irony.

But I promised a cautionary tale. This is actually not a tale so much as an example of why we need to think critically when assessing the information we find on the WWW.
I googled ‘in spite of or despite,’ and came across this:


What’s the difference between “in spite of” and “despite”?

In spite of is intentionally doing something to get back at someone.

Despite is doing something regardless of what other people are doing… not necessarily spiteful just different.

Well, of course that’s wildly wrong, and as I said, there’s all kinds of misinformation on the web. But what made me so nonplussed about this item was the way it was labeled:


Resolved Question

What’s the difference between “in spite of” and “despite”?

In spite of is intentionally doing something to get back at someone.

Despite is doing something regardless of what other people are doing… not necessarily spiteful just different.

Best Answer – Chosen by Voters

The answer given ‘resolved the question’ and was voted ‘best answer’ by multiple voters. I can’t help but wonder if some kids looking for an answer might stumble across this and be satisfied that they now understand the difference between ‘in spite of’ and ‘despite.’

And this leads me to the answer to the reader’s first question. There is absolutely no difference in meanings between ‘in spite of’ and ‘despite.’ Their meanings are identical, and they can be used interchangeably.

My inclination would be to use ‘despite’ because it is shorter, but, truly, either will do.

The boy was determined and proceeded to the fishing hole despite the rain.

The boy was determined and proceeded to the fishing hole in spite of the rain.

I like Garner’s terse comment on this:

The compactness of despite recommends it.

And there you have it.

Tip 2: Among or in

Does a disease occur ‘in populations that…’ or ‘among populations who…’?

I have to admit that this question gave me fits. Not that I had a problem with the answer (both usages are correct), but because I wondered how far I wanted to go in exploring the use of ‘among’-it has a very fussy rule associated with it, and I am having a hard time deciding if it is still relevant.

What to say about ‘among’?

1) In our formal writing, ‘among’ is preferred to ‘amongst’ which is archaic and is best left unused these days. [NOTE: This holds true for American English, not British English.]

2) ‘Among’ is generally used when referring to three or more things; ‘between’ is ALWAYS used when referring to just two things. However, ‘between’ can also be used when referring to three or more things when the things are distinct and their relationship is concrete. Let me try to clarify this with some examples:

The consensus among modern writers is that ‘amongst’ is archaic.

I want to look at the differences between post-docs and clinical fellows to see if I can detect any patterns.

Comprehension among children varied according to their skills in reading.

In the summer, he travelled regularly between France, England, Germany, and Spain.

The above use of ‘between’ sounds much less awkward than:

In the summer, he travelled regularly among France, England, Germany, and Spain.

The cradle was tightly tucked between the table, the ironing board, and the recliner.

The above use of ‘between’ sounds much less awkward than:

The cradle was tightly tucked among the table, the ironing board, and the recliner.

It should be noted that some stylebooks and grammarians are still sticklers for the rule that you use ‘between’ for two and ‘among’ for three or more, but I think the above examples clearly show why it doesn’t make sense to follow this rule slavishly.

You might think that this is the fussy rule that I alluded to earlier. Unfortunately, it is not. It gets worse.

3) ‘Among’ is generally used with count nouns (nouns that refer to countable things and can be made plural) and collective nouns that refer to individual things (e.g., children, congregation).

I wandered among the leaves that had fallen from the oak trees.

The athlete was the first among our cohort to reach the end of the trail.

‘Amid’ or ‘in’ or some other preposition is used with collective nouns that refer to a group rather than individuals within a group (e.g., herd, jury).

The professor could not hear the question amid the chorus of laughter in the auditorium.

The girl with the bright yellow umbrella stood out clearly from the dreary crowd moving about in the rain.

Why is this so irksome? There are a few reasons:

‘Amid’ (or ‘amidst’) is, if not archaic (and it’s not), somewhat antiquated and does not fall trippingly off the tongue, so I would not feel comfortable further promoting its frequent use.

There are occasions when I will use ‘amid’ (e.g., the house stood amid the trees), but not in opposition to using ‘among.’ In fact, according to the rule, my ‘amid’ should be ‘among,’ and that would not have been my word choice (i.e., the house stood among the trees).

And that brings me to another reason:

This is not a rule we generally follow. I can think of myriad examples where ‘among’ and other prepositions are used interchangeably and not according to this rule.:

Two gentlemen stood out among the contingent representing the union.

According to the rule, ‘among’ should be replaced with ‘from’ in the above.

I found lots of quotes where ‘amid’ should be replaced by ‘among’ according to the rule. Here are a  couple:

I see that the path of progress has never taken a straight line, but has always been a zigzag course amid the conflicting forces of right and wrong, truth and error, justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy.
Kelly Miller (American Sociologist, 1863 – 1939)

An atmosphere of beliefs and conceptions has been formed by the labours and struggles of our forefathers, which enables us to breathe amid the various and complex circumstances of our life.
William Kingdon Clifford (English Mathematician, 1845 – 1879)

Finally, from what I can tell, there are few who know or pay heed to this rule. I know that when I write a sentence, I don’t consider whether a word is a counting noun before I decide which preposition to use. It may be that I do this subconsciously, I don’t know. But I do know that, when I saw an example in Garner’s Modern American Usage, where he thought ‘among’ should be replaced with ‘in,’ I thought to myself, “What’s wrong with the sentence the way it is?” As a result, this falls, for me, under the ‘life is too short’ category, and I will use ‘between’ if it’s called for and ‘among,’ ‘amid,’ or another preposition as it sounds best to me. After all, life is too short.



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