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04.13.2003

Despite - Or Perhaps Because Of - Sucks

Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that I learned English as a second language, I get irrationally worked up sometimes about questions of usage. Some cliché string of words will rear its ugly head once too often, catch my attention, and then I just see it everywhere. This begs the question: is it better to try and stamp out these abominations, or just learn to live with them? And isn't there a risk that despite - or perhaps, because of - one's strident efforts, the bum usage will just grow more popular?

I've been going crazy over this linguistic kudzu. "Begs the question" is probably a lost cause. When I hear people use it to mean "raises the question", I feel like someone has just shaved their legs with my razor. I want to yell "no, no, NO, you can't do that, you use it like THIS!", but by then the damage is done, and it is permanent.

Which is a damned shame. Because begging the question is such a useful concept, especially in these surreal times. Short of naming my first born son Petitio Principii, I don't know what else to do.

This other thing, however - this business about "despite, or perhaps because of" - may still be something we can stop. It's like a malignant new disease - it's been spotted in the wild, it's spreading, we have to act fast.

As near as I can tell, this noxious little phrase is supposed to mean: you'd think X is true, but actually Y is true. As in,

The party was a success despite - or perhaps because of - the lack of alcohol.
You think you need alcohol to have a good time (X), but maybe some people are more fun when they're sober (Y). That seems harmless enough. A bracing little head fake to wake a reader right up. Upturns the old expectations, in an elegant rhetorical twist.

But just see how you like it in large doses:

  1. The Man Without a Past is a modern fairy tale. It certainly is divorced from reality. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—it's a satisfying motion picture. [#]
  2. Yahoo and Amazon scored high with this age group, despite - or perhaps because - they're so plain and simple. #
  3. That evolvability properties are not an accident or automatically derived from evolution is evidenced by an often profound failure for them to be realised in artificial evolutionary computation [2], despite (or perhaps because of?) the flexibility of constructing the genetic systems and phenotype realisations used in the computations. #
  4. Despite or perhaps because of Cisco's status as a champion of IP, Archibald added a plug for Fibre Channel. #

Can't you just feel your eyes slip out of focus as you read this dreck? Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that you see it coming? The whole point of it is to make the author sound clever. "You thought I was saying this, but perhaps I'm saying the complete opposite! Or maybe I'm not. Why don't you go back, while I wait here, and re-parse everything I talked about, in two different ways?".

It's not unlike that infuriating "not un-" usage you find in academic writing. Both are make-work for the reader, intended to create the illusion of profound thought by making the text denser than it needs to be. A way of saying "I changed my mind in the middle of writing this, but I'm too lazy to revise it".

Don't use this construct! Don't associate with those that do! Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that I'm asking you not to!

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