In Spite vs. Despite: What’s the Difference?

“In spite of” and “despite” both serve the same purpose grammatically. These prepositions link contrasting ideas. You can follow them with a noun, a gerund, or a pronoun, and then another clause to show contrast.

Let’s look at a few example sentences. 

In spite of + noun + contrasting idea

In spite of the rain, I headed straight for the pool. 

In spite of + gerund (-ing form of a verb) + contrasting idea

In spite of traveling all day, they still wanted to visit the lake. 

In spite of + pronoun + contrasting idea

In spite of that, he answered the phone. 

All of the examples above have the same meaning when you replace “in spite of” with the word “despite”. They also work no matter where you place the dependent prepositional phrase in the sentence. In other words, you can reframe any of the sentences above so that the prepositional phrase comes after the independent clause:

I headed straight for the pool in spite of the rain.

In addition to the grammatical structures listed above, native speakers employ an English grammar trick that enables them to use different parts of speech after “in spite of” and “despite”. They simply use the noun phrase “the fact that” to allow for more flexibility. Of course, non-native speakers can use this trick, too! 

By introducing this construction, you can follow “in spite” or “despite” with a variety of different phrases rather than only nouns, pronouns, or gerunds. For example, imagine the independent clause, “There was bad weather.” You normally couldn’t follow “in spite of” with “there was bad weather”; however, when you add the phrase “the fact that,” the entire long phrase functions together as a single noun (a fact). 

In spite of the fact that there was bad weather, we still ate outside. 

This construction is common in the English language, but it’s not normally used for formal writing. In a more formal context, try shortening “the fact that there was bad weather” to “the bad weather” make the sentence more concise:

In spite of the bad weather, we still ate outside. 

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Etymology

The Proto-Indo-European root spek- developed into the Latin word despectus, the Online Etymology Dictionary explains. Despectus, meaning “a looking down on, scorn, contempt,” evolved into the Old French despit, “scorn, contempt.” By 1300, English speakers had adopted the noun “despit,” meaning “contemptuous challenge, defiance.” The word appeared in the prepositional phrase “in despit of,” which meant “in contempt of.” This, too, was borrowed from the French, en despit de. Eventually, English-speakers shortened that phrase to a single word, “despite”. The word “spite” and the phrase “in spite of” have the same origin. 

Definitions

Merriam-Webster defines the preposition “despite” as “in spite of.” As a noun, despite means, “the feeling or attitude of despising someone or something,” “malice, spite,” “an act of showing contempt or defiance,” or “detriment, disadvantage.” 

Here’s an example of how the word “despite” can be used as a noun:

“Look not for cross invectives at our hands, 

Or railing execrations of despite.”

King Edward III, William Shakespeare

The infinitive verb “to spite” is still used in English today.  In this context, spite means, “annoy, offend,” “to fill with spite,”  or “to treat maliciously.” For instance, you could say, “Sarah wanted to learn English to spite her family.” In Modern English, we no longer use “despite” as a verb. 

The phrase “in spite of” operates as a preposition, and it means “in defiance or contempt of” or “without being prevented by.” 

Spite, as a noun, refers to “petty ill will” or “an instance of spite.” You might say, “Don’t do something out of spite,” meaning that one shouldn’t take action based on petty ill will. 

Interestingly, some grammar enthusiasts insist that the only difference between “despite” and “in spite of” is one of connotation. They claim that although “despite” and “in spite of” mean the same thing, “despite” sounds more neutral than “in spite of.” 

We would argue that there’s not enough evidence to support this distinction. The dictionary definitions indicate that the prepositions are interchangeable. Both despite and spite come from the same original phrase (“in despite of”), and both words can carry contemptuous undertones. 

Synonyms

According to Thesaurus.com, synonyms for despite include:

  • in spite of
  • regardless of
  • against
  • although
  • even though
  • even with
  • in contempt of
  • in defiance of
  • in the face of
  • notwithstanding
  • undeterred by

Thesaurus.com lists the following as synonyms for “in spite of”:

  • even
  • although
  • notwithstanding
  • for
  • indeed
  • much
  • despite
  • disregarding
  • nonetheless
  • nevertheless
  • withal
  • yet

Other Words and Phrases

Taking an action “despite (oneself)” or “in spite of (oneself)” means doing something without wanting or intending to do it. It’s used with “myself,” “yourself,” “himself,” “herself,” “themselves,” or “oneself.”  

A spite-fence is a “barrier erected to cause annoyance,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The term dates from 1889 and, presumably, it originated with feuding neighbors. 

“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” is an idiom that suggests the harm you hope to inflict on an enemy could end up hurting you in return. Harvard professor Steven Pinker, explains the possible origins of the phrase in his book,The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: “In late medieval times, cutting off someone’s nose was the prototypical act of spite.”

The phrase “for spite’s sake” describes an action undertaken in the pursuit of petty ill will. 

Sources: 

  1. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/in-spite-of-and-despite
  2. https://www.shakespeareswords.com/Public/Play.aspx?WorkId=14&Scene=3&Act=3#164144
  3. https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/506/usage-in-spite-of-and-despite-of#:~:text=’in%20spite%20of’%2C%20suggests,Examples%20of%20proper%20usage%3A&text=In%20spite%20and%20despite%20have,express%20rebellion%20and%2For%20contempt.
  4. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=despite
  5. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature/8-vYCwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover