"…but only despite…"?

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I have a feeling that I'm coming at this sentence wrong, somehow — Laurie Garrett, "Meet Trump’s New, Homophobic Public Health Quack", Foreign Policy 3/23/2018:

Outside of his work with the military, [Robert] Redfield, a devout Roman Catholic, was associated with Americans for a Sound AIDS/HIV Policy (ASAP), a Christian organization headed by W. Shepherd Smith Jr. ASAP backed the idea of mandatory testing for HIV and isolation or identification of those infected with HIV. […]

H.R. 2788, sponsored by arch-conservative Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.), would have revised many aspects of the Public Health Service Act, allowing for testing, loss of licensing, and quarantine of HIV-infected individuals. It ultimately failed to pass but only despite Redfield’s advocacy.

I'm used to the rhetorical trope "X, but only because of Y", meaning that without the influence of Y, X would not be true. Here are a few examples from recent news:

[link] The American advertising market grew by around 3% last year, to $196bn, but only because of the tech giants.

[link] The retailer’s revenues rose 4.3pc to £396m in the 26 weeks to Jan 27, but only because of its acquisition of rival Sofology and stores belonging to collapsed furniture chain Multiyork.

[link] Love Strictly Come Dancing, but only because of the rumours about the contestants hooking up behind the scenes?

[link] Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in New York, but only because of its effects on local communities where the drilling took place; he’s been happy to approve new power plants that run on gas from elsewhere.

Glossing "X, but only because Y" in even heavier English, we get something like:

X is the case due to the positive influence of Y, and if it weren't for that positive influence, X would not be the case.

Or maybe

X is the case due to the positive influence of Y, and there are no other significant reasons that X is the case.

So what does "X, but only despite Y" mean? That X is the case despite the contrary influence of Y, and if it weren't for that contrary influence, X would not be the case? That X is the case despite the contrary influence of Y, and there are no other significant reasons for X not to be the case?


Maybe some other examples will help:

Hmm.  OK, trying Google Blog Search turns up one result — Laura Bradley, "Why Does Everyone Think of Han Solo as a Sex Symbol? He’s a Total Goober", Slate 12/9/2015:

Han Solo, most people will tell you, is the perfect everyman hero. He’s handsome, but approachably so. He’s an ordinary human who holds his own among Force-wielders and giant space slugs. He’s charming, but only despite his gruffest intentions. And, of course, he’s relentlessly quotable. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid,” he shrugs. “Never tell me the odds!” he barks. But there’s a less capable, more insecure man lurking behind the myth, and he’s a far cry from the swaggy action hero this character has been made out to be in the years since A New Hope premiered. If you rewatch the original Star Wars movies, it’s a rude awakening: Han Solo is not a sex symbol. He’s a goober.

OK, this seems to mean that he's charming despite his gruffest intentions — and maybe that if it weren't for those gruff intentions, he wouldn't be charming? I'm not sure. Maybe.

So getting back to Robert Redfield and HR2788, maybe "It ultimately failed to pass but only despite Redfield’s advocacy" really means that the bill failed to pass despite his advocacy, and if it weren't for that advocacy, it wouldn't have failed?

No, I don't think so. Maybe someone in the comments can help me out.

The obligatory screen shot:


  1. Jonathan D said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 5:08 pm

    Seems to me they're both effectively emphasising the "despite", the "only" sort of implying that if it weren't for the contrary influence, X would be even more true.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 5:48 pm

    "He's charming, even though he tries not to be."
    "He's charming, but only because he fails at his attempts to be otherwise."
    > "He's charming, but only despite his attempts to be otherwise."

    Certainly weird, but makes sense to me.

  3. Andrew Usher said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 6:20 pm

    That usage may make sense but this clearly isn't that – it's just a sentence that needs to be 'taken out and shot'!

    In both these cases, removing the 'but only' would give the most sensible result I can conceive was intended.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  4. Ethan said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

    I take "only despite X" as equivalent to "but not for a lack of X". The bare statement "it passed despite Redfield's advocacy" doesn't tell us anything about how vehement or effective that advocacy might have been. Adding "only" implies that he was pushing very strongly for it, or that he came close to being successful in his advocacy, or both.

  5. Dan S said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 6:30 pm

    Missing commas?

    "It ultimately failed to pass, but only, despite Redfield’s advocacy", meaning it just barely failed to pass despite the advocacy.

  6. JPL said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 8:35 pm

    Originally, I thought this was an example of rephrasing residue, or whatever term was settled on in a previous post. But let's say it's not that, and that for this author this phrasing expresses what he intended. It seems that what is required here is an expression such as, "It ultimately failed to pass despite Redfield's advocacy." So why did he put in "but only"? "despite" should have been sufficient, so this would indicate that the author's understanding of the meaning of 'despite' is deviant. So what would his understanding of the meaning of 'despite' have to be to express for him something like the sense I indicated above?

    1. [p, but only because c] : expresses the idea that c is a necessary condition for the occurrence of the event p. "It ultimately failed to pass, but only because R's advocacy failed." would express the idea that the failure of R's advocacy was a necessary condition for the failure of the bill to pass.

    2. [p despite c]: expresses the idea that c makes p possible, but that c (alone) is not sufficient for the occurrence of p. "It ultimately failed to pass despite R's advocacy." would express the idea that R's advocacy is the kind of thing that would normally make passage of a bill more likely, but in this case other necessary conditions were not present, so the bill did not pass. I think this would be the sense that an accurate account of the situation would require, as I said above.

    3. ?[p but only despite c]: In the mistaken view, would express the idea that the insufficiency of c is a necessary condition for the occurrence of p (includes a negative element related to c). "It ultimately failed to pass but only despite R's advocacy." would express the idea that the insufficiency or ineffectiveness of the advocacy was a necessary condition for the failure of the bill to pass (or, "the bill failed to pass, but only because of the insufficiency of R's advocacy"; "the insufficiency of the normally effective advocacy was a necessary condition for the non-occurrence of the passage of the bill."), which would be equivalent to 1 above and different from 2. (This means I am saying that what he intended to express was not what he needed to express.) This is not what 'despite' means in English (see 2 above), but this person seems to see "but only despite" mistakenly as a sort of negative counterpart to "but only because". The other case is a little bit different.

  7. D.O. said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 9:34 pm

    I think that it's what JPL called a "rephrasing residue". It probably started like "It ultimately failed to pass but only because Redfield’s advocacy failed." Then the author decided that putting "failed" twice in the same sentence is a bad writing, removed second "failed" and changed the polarity without noticing that "only" becomes unidiomatic.

  8. TIC said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 6:45 am

    Neither "It ultimately failed to pass but only despite Redfield's advocacy" nor "He's charming, but only despite his gruffest intentions" strikes me as particularly odd, problematic, or accidental/unintended… I do sense that "but only despite" is a bit idiomatic (perhaps influenced by "but only after"?)… I do think it's better with a comma, as in the second instance… And I do think that "but only" could, and perhaps should, be omitted in both instances… The inclusion of "but only" seems to be an attempt at emphasis, but I'm not sure of just what… In the end, it seems to me that, rightly or wrongly, I see and use "despite" and "in spite of" as pretty much interchangeable… And, when in a highfalutin mood, "notwithstanding" works similarly, too… Of course, having said all this, I realize that my interest in subtleties and nuances of usage (and my belief that there are, in fact, very few if any true synonyms) forces me to now look more deeply into the three terms…

  9. James Wimberley said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 7:30 am

    I love Language Log, despite an obsession with double negatives I can't overstate.

  10. Francis Boyle said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 8:11 am

    I don't have a problem with the second example. Since the paragraph is summarising the idea that Han is a popular character precisely because he's not excessively heroic, a simple "charming, despite" wouldn't really work.

    The first example, though, defeats me. The bill's defeat wasn't lessened in any way by Redfield’s advocacy. What is lessened is Redfield' excuse that he can't be held responsible for his advocacy because the bill didn't pass, which is a horribly complex idea to be merely implied, as well as been oddly circular. We really needed to be told about the advocacy first. But that's the sort of clumsy contortions you get when articles are written to a deadline and then edited to meet an arbitrary word count.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 10:29 am

    @Dan S: I can't imagine a native speaker of English using "only" to mean "barely" in that fashion.

  12. Mark314159 said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 11:18 am

    The car park (parking lot) of a pub in Oxford, England, displayed a sign “No Parking Only At All Times”. Any ideas what it could mean?

  13. Mark F. said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

    I don't think "but only because" is the right point of comparison. You also see "X, but only after Y", which means something like "X came to be the case, but the only way it was able to do so was by overcoming the (implicitly unexpected) negative influence of Y." It is a short step from there to "X, but only despite Y."

    A rephrasing of the original sentence might be "It ultimately was defeated but only after almost being saved by Redfield's advocacy."

  14. Marty said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

    I read the "but only" there as an ironic bit, revealing something of the authors distaste for said advocacy…

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 2:43 pm

    I tend to agree with the others who have said (as I would restate it) that the best way to make sense of this phrasing, in particular the role of the word "only," is to take the sentence to be asserting that the bill was close to passage but narrowly defeated, with Redfield's vigorous advocacy making the margin of defeat even closer than it otherwise might have been. However, in googling in an effort to determine how close or non-close the final vote on the bill actually had been, I couldn't find a final vote. Instead, it appears from http://www.congress.gov that back in 1991 the bill was introduced, referred to the appropriate committee, and referred in turn to the appropriate subcommittee, from whence it never emerged. While it is not strictly untrue that a bill which dies in committee (as many, probably most, do) has "failed to pass," there's something dubious about the formulation as used here that could probably be explained via Gricean maxims.

  16. Charles Newman said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 2:44 pm

    I'm going with rephrasing residue (great term) or poor (nonexistent?) copy editing. Trying to understand the syntax is probably a waste of time. (But isn't that one of LL's primary functions?)

  17. DaveK said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 6:15 pm

    You can say the bill passed only because of his advocacy, which means his efforts were a vital reason, even if there were other reasons it passed. But if it failed despite his advocacy, then either his efforts weren’t good enough ( which is not what the author is saying) or his efforts didn’t affect the outcome. If they didn’t affect the outcome, then they can’t be said to have been a vital or sole reason.

  18. Martin B said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 1:40 am


    I would parse that as ‘No (parking only) at all times’ where (parking only) = ‘parking without being a customer’. So the sign IMO is equivalent to ‘Parking for customers only. No parking outside business hours.’

  19. Jenny Chu said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 9:58 pm

    @Mark314159 and @Martin B –

    1. "No parking" is a state of being in which "parking" does not obtain. So this area is restricted only to that state of being. Or:
    2. The "only" is a postposed adjective, like "only child". In that sense, it would imply that parking with friends is allowed, but parking alone is right out.

  20. TIC said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 6:27 am

    I hope I'll be forgiven for asking a tangentially related question here… The tangent, as I see it, is a similar mis-phrasing that could easily go unnoticed…

    Over the weekend, in an NPR piece about a potential change to the way health insurers in one US state might diagnose black-lung disease, a well-spoken commentator cited, "fears that fewer will qualify [for coverage] even when they should"… A more appropriate phrasing, of course, would be something along the lines of, "fears that some won't qualify, even when they should"… Or, perhaps, "even though they should"…

    This type of mis-phrasing doesn't fall under the category of misnegation, does it?… If not, do we have a term/category for it?…

    And, given that I've already breached the Comments protocols, can anyone refer me to any good, general guidance on when/whether to hyphenate words like "mis-phrasing" and "misnegation"?…

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