2

My question is provoked by a desire to better explain to my students grammatical conventions regarding "despite." I am finding that my own explanatory resources come up short in this regard.

Erroneous sentence:

Despite there are many critics of Halloween, it is important to take a look at its positive aspects.

I understand that "despite" is a preposition. A preposition must take a noun phrase or a gerund as its object. Thus the sentence can be corrected this way:

Despite (the many critics of Halloween / the constant criticism of Halloween) , it is important to take a look at its positive aspects.

What I think is happening in my students' erroneous sentences is that they assume the usage of "despite" will conform to sentence structures that employ adverbs of contrast. My students grasp that the function of despite is to set up a contrast, but then assume that they can employ it as they can "although" or "while" :

Although/while there are many critics of Halloween, it is important to take a look at its positive aspects.

Here's where I begin to become entangled myself. I want to be able to demonstrate to them that "although" and "despite" differ in that the first is an adverb which can modify a whole clause, but despite can only modify a noun phrase. However, if I want to show them analogies with basic prepositions I run into difficulties.

What I want to show to my students as an analogy:

"In / Slovakia's eastern region, / it is important to learn Slovak."

Preposition / noun phrase, / sentence

"Despite / its many critics, / it is important to look at the positive side of Halloween."

Preposition / noun phrase / sentence

The trouble is in elucidating why it is so that "despite" is a preposition that sets up a contrast. How is one able to think of the relationship of contrast given through "despite" as something analogous to what "in," "by," "through," "at," locate, all of which are so much easier to imagine spatially, which we think of almost statically?

How can one think, imaginatively or analogously or otherwise, of the way by which prepositions set up relationships of contrast? We can think of that already in "across from" and "beside" ? Is it simply that one can think of a preposition as an "arranger" which places things into position, and so is capable setting up a relationship? How is that different than how an adverb sets up a relationship of contrast?

  • 'While' etc are conjunctions here. Although John is small, he is a good fighter. / John is small but he is a good fighter. Check 'though' say at ODO (sense 1). – Edwin Ashworth Oct 31 '15 at 17:22
  • It's easy to see the story with a phrase, but an unproductive word like despite is hard to fathom. Despite is the same as (and the same ultimate source as) to spite, or in spite of. Have students look up spite and see phrases like bite off your nose to spite your face, (which always seemed archaic and Grimmish when quoted to me as a child). So He did it despite the critics means, roughly, 'He did it to spit in the face of the critics.' Kids like violent mnemonics, I've found. – John Lawler Oct 31 '15 at 18:31
  • +1. This question from a new user presents a thoughtful and sincere request for help regarding a legitimate point of English language and usage. I find the previous downvote difficult to fathom. – Sven Yargs Oct 31 '15 at 19:47
  • For what it's worth, despite that can be used as a conjunction. – Anonym Oct 31 '15 at 19:50
1

The semantic class of adversatives—words that, as you put it, “set up relationships of contrast,” or of dialectical tension—overlaps various grammatical classes (parts of speech) including preposition despite, subordinating conjunctions although, though, while, etc., adverbs though, however, nonetheless, etc., and coordinating conjunction but. See this previous question: I had not thought to include despite when I answered that, but have now repaired the omission.

1

To start with, I have to point out that although is not an adverb, except perhaps in a very colloquial usage ("It's bright red. Although, sometimes it turns brownish after a while"). In traditional grammar, it's classified as a conjunction, because it links two clauses ("there are many critics of Halloween" and "it is important to take a look at its positive aspects"). More specifically, it's classified as a subordinating conjunction, because the clause that it introduces is a subordinate clause — specifically an adverb clause: "although there are many critics of Halloween" modifies "it is important to take a look at its positive aspects".

That said, modern scientific analyses of English typically don't recognize subordinating conjunction as a class anymore. The traditional distinction between "prepositions" that (usually) take noun-like complements, "adverb" particles that take no complements, and "subordinating conjunctions" that take clausal complements ignores the many similarities between these. Just as leave, become, send, and think are all considered verbs even though they take completely different kinds of complements, it makes the most sense to consider any word to be a preposition, no matter what complements it takes, provided that the result behaves as a prepositional phrase. (Traditional grammar has difficulty with this, because the only behavior it recognizes for prepositional phrases is that they sometimes modify nouns and sometimes modify other things; this is too vague to be used as the basis of a categorization scheme. But linguists have noted that prepositional phrases differ markedly from adjectives in many respects, for example in that they cannot be modified by very or more. We can say "very centrally located", but not *"very in the middle".)

This approach elegantly handles the fact that many or most traditional "prepositions" also exist as traditional "adverb" particles or as traditional "subordinating conjunctions" (or both), since this is analogous to the way that many verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, or otherwise support multiple patterns of complementation. For example:

I've done it before. [traditional "adverb" particle: no complement]
I did it before the party. [traditional "preposition": noun-phrase complement]
I did it before the party started. [traditional "subordinating conjunction": clause complement]

This approach also helps to explain why your students are confused. In formal English, despite is only used with noun and noun-like complements (not with complete clause complements), but your students, who are less comfortable with it, are overgeneralizing it on the model of prepositions like before.

To address this, I suggest comparing it to the preposition of, which has the same restriction as despite. There are various so-called "compound prepositions" that end in of and that therefore generally behave the same way as despite and of; and conveniently for your purposes, some of these have the same or related meanings, making it easy to see the similarity:

In spite of the many critics of Halloween, it is important to take a look at its positive aspects. [fine]
*In spite of there are many critics of Halloween, it is important to take a look at its positive aspects. [ungrammatical]

Because of the many critics of Halloween, it can be difficult to remember its positive aspects. [fine]
*Because of there are many critics of Halloween, it can be difficult to remember its positive aspects. [ungrammatical; can be fixed by changing "because of" to "because"]


How is one able to think of the relationship of contrast given through "despite" as something analogous to what "in," "by," "through," "at," locate, all of which are so much easier to imagine spatially, which we think of almost statically?

I don't think this is a helpful approach, since (for example) despite and although create exactly the same relationship between their complements and the clauses being modified. The only difference is in the syntactic classes of their complements. So it needs to be explained as a first-level fact about despite and although, not as a consequence of some other fact.

  • I wouldn't say "very in the middle," but I would say "extremely out of touch." – deadrat Oct 31 '15 at 18:26
  • @deadrat: Indeed. Out of touch, in the figurative sense, has probably been lexicalized as an adjective. – ruakh Oct 31 '15 at 20:12
  • Prepositional phrases can take the same modifier role as adjectives, so I don't think "lexicalized as an adjective" carries much force. I can certainly says that "my position is more in the middle of the road than my opponent's." You can't inflect prepositional phrases for degree as you can for adjectives, and there are probably other differences that my competence doesn't extend to describing. – deadrat Oct 31 '15 at 20:29
  • @deadrat: You can say "more in the middle of the road"?? I find that very strange. I'd say "my position is more middle-of-the-road than my opponents". (I guess this means that you take "in the middle of the road" as an adjective, whereas I do not. I wonder if that's a regional difference, or just an idiolectal difference.) – ruakh Oct 31 '15 at 20:45
  • a) Correction noted about classifying although/while as subordinating conjunctions, not as adverbs. Also noted, that the clauses they introduce are classified as adverb clauses. – Tauler Oct 31 '15 at 21:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.