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I had an argument about the phrase "despite the fact". The argument was around the headline:

US Immigration officials deport 14 year old runaway to Colombia, despite the fact that she's American and speaks no Spanish.

When US Immigration officials deported her they did not realize she was American and that she speaks no Spanish.

One of us took the side that this title was misleading because it implies that Immigration officials knew she was American when they deported, which they did not. The other took the side that this is a perfectly acceptable usage of "despite the fact" and that the title uses a common and acceptable usage of the phrase and is therefore it is not misleading.

Is this title misleading or not?

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If it's a reputable publication, they blew the lede. If the officials had known that information at the time, it would make for a much bigger story. If the source is a News Corp. publication, or in some other way disreputable, then the text could simply be intentionally misleading. –  Robusto Jan 6 '12 at 21:38

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The headline does not state whether the officials knew of the girl's citizenship, but this can't be attributed to the choice of despite the fact that. The information about their knowledge would be clear if the headline read:

US Immigration officials deport 14 year-old runaway to Colombia, despite the fact that they know she's American and speaks no Spanish.

I'd say the headline lacks information, I wouldn't necessarily call it misleading.

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Sure, I'll take the other side. The structure of the headline is: agent does X, despite Y. To me this means precisely that the agent acts in disregard of Y. It is meaningless to speak of disregarding something you are not aware of. So the corollary is that that the agent is aware of Y.

The headline means:

US Immigration officials deport 14 year old runaway to Colombia, disregarding the fact that she's American and speaks no Spanish.

So, presuming the article goes on to report that officials did not know the runaway was American, the headline is misleading.

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What about, "He won $5,000 at Blackjack despite the fact that the house has overwhelming odds." Does this imply that he knew the odds were overwelming and dsregarded that? To me, it's quite the reverse. For example, how about: "He borrowed my car, despite the fact that it needs new brakes." To me, there's no implication he knew that it needs new brakes. In fact "the fact that" depersonalizes it. –  David Schwartz Jan 7 '12 at 2:05
    
To me, "He borrowed my car, despite the fact that it needs new brakes." has a (vague) implication that you informed him that the brakes were bad. "He borrowed my car, despite the fact that I told him it needs new brakes." is much closer to the original than "He borrowed my car, despite the fact that I didn't tell him it needs new brakes.". Also the odds in blackjack aren't overwhelming, and the house doesn't necessarily have better odds :P. And the odds at roulette are known, and usually disregarded in favour of "luck". –  naught101 Sep 16 at 1:03

I don't think it is misleading at all.

The headline is intended for the reader's benefit. The fact is -- or will become -- clear (to the reader) that she's American and speaks no Spanish.

In no way does the headline imply that the officials knew that fact... or even if it was a fact at all at the time... These are questions which the reader may have and, hopefully, which the reader will learn from reading the article.

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It looks like you're getting tripped up by "the fact that". This appears to be a grammatical construct to overcome English's inability to apply prepositions to the conjunction "that". To solve the problem, we put in a dummy noun phrase, to which the "that" is applied. So, instead of saying "despite that she speaks English", we say "despite the fact that she speaks English".

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