“Per se” is a Latin term that some English speakers and writers use frequently and, often, unnecessarily. Occasionally, you’ll even see someone write the term as “per say,” so what is the correct spelling and use of the term?
“Per se,” is correct as it is a Latin phrase for “by itself” or “in itself,” used to single out a particular element of a larger topic or refer to the essence of something. The phrase “per say” has no meaning, and the correct spelling is always “per se” because it is a Latin loanword retaining the Latin spelling.
The best way to learn about the correct and incorrect ways of using “per se” is to look at examples. Follow our discussion, and you will never wonder again why you can’t use “per say.” You’ll also discover when it is better to replace “per se” with an English synonym.
We Spell It as “Per Se” Because It’s a Latin Loanword
English speakers, especially those still learning English, who write the term as “per say” are, in the first place, probably not aware of the term’s background in Latin. Others know it is Latin but mistakenly think that there is an anglicized spelling for it.
One must remember that “per se” is a borrowed term, so you have to use it as a loanword. A loanword is a word adopted from a foreign language with no, or very little, modification in the word’s spelling (source).
The English language borrows many words from Latin. People use many loanwords so commonly that few people realize we’ve borrowed them from Latin. Examples include words like affidavit, alibi, animal, bonus, deficit, exit, and many more.
In addition to odd spellings from loanwords, English has numerous other spelling complications, such as why we spell “weird” and “taught” the way we do.
The Origin and Meaning of Per Se
“Per se” is a term directly taken from Latin that translates to “by itself,“ “in itself,” or “of itself.” In Latin, the preposition “per” means “by” or “through,” and the reflexive pronoun “se” can mean “itself,” “himself,” herself,” or “themselves” (source).
It functions as either an adverb, meaning intrinsically, or as an adjective, meaning inherent, clear, or as a legal matter (source).
The term “per se” first appeared during the transition from Middle English to Early Modern English in the 1500s as a way to refer to letters as letters. For example, to refer to “a,” they would write “A per se” to distinguish it from using the definite article “a” (source).
They also used the same phrase to mean a unique, prominent, or otherwise outstanding person. For example, “Thou shalt be an a-per-se, my son.”
William Shakespeare used it in his play Troilus and Cressida, where Alexander says: “They say [Ajax] is a very man per se, And stands alone” (source).
General Meaning and Usage
Today, we generally use “per se” to set something apart in a narrower sense from something broader that it represents. In other words, we use “per se” to show we are referring to something on its own rather than in connection with other things (source).
As an example, you may have no objection to vaccination against coronaviruses per se but, rather, to the not-so-hygienic application of vaccines in some poor communities.
In this example, “per se” refers to the fact that you are not against coronavirus vaccination in and of itself. Rather, you object to unhygienic vaccination methods, which is much narrower than a broader objection to vaccination.
Meaning in the Legal Field
In the legal field, “per se” means “inherently.” For example, it indicates that an act is inherently illegal. Thus, a widely published article that falsely accuses someone of being a felon is libel per se, and there is no need for further explanation of the meaning of that statement (source).
Lawyers often use “per se” in tort law to indicate that specific circumstances create the presumption something else also exists. For example, if we can deem somebody’s conduct as negligence per se or slander per se, other circumstances do not play a large enough role to excuse the accused person.
Legal scholars can also categorize “nuisances” as per se, meaning it is an act or structure that is a nuisance at all times and under any circumstances. The opposite would be “per accidens” or by chance, which may vary based on circumstances. The court generally decides whether something is per se as a matter of law (source).
As an Adverb
Most often, “per se” functions as an adverb, meaning that it modifies a verb, adjective, a phrase, or possibly even the whole sentence.
In this context, it means “by itself” or “intrinsically” and refers specifically to qualities exhibited that stand alone as unconnected to something else. Consider the following sentences.
The procedure is not difficult per se, but it is dangerous when performed with the wrong tools.
The content isn’t very interesting per se, but it leads to further training courses.
In the first sentence, “per se” modifies the phrase “to be difficult” and specifies that the procedure isn’t difficult on its own but can be when performed with the wrong tools.
In the second sentence, “per se” modifies the phrase “to be interesting” and specifies that the content isn’t very interesting on its own but is a stepping stone to further training.
As an Adjective
You can also use “per se” as an adjective, meaning that it describes a noun in the sentence. Here it also means “by itself.”
Unlike most adjectives in English, where the adjective comes before the noun, when you use “per se” as an adjective, it generally follows the noun it modifies. The following are two good examples.
The research concludes that bed-sharing per se does not put babies at risk.
It is not these specified steps per se that are important.
In the first sentence, “per se” describes the noun “bed-sharing” and specifies that it’s not bed-sharing alone that puts babies at risk. In the second sentence, “per se” describes the noun “steps” and specifies that it’s not just the specific steps that are important.
Don’t Confuse It with Perse
One must never confuse “per se” with the other English word “perse.” While this adjective is rare, it is still beneficial to take note of it. “Perse” came to English in the 13th century from Old French pers and the Medieval Latin “persus,” probably connected to Persia(source)
Perse is a dark, greyish-blue color, and we always write it as one word with a pronunciation like “purse” (source).
How to Use Per Se Correctly
“Per se” is used to distinguish something in a narrower sense from a broader context. Let’s look at five example sentences with explanations that use “per se” correctly.
I have nothing against the ruling party or the official opposition per se, but I’m going to give my vote to the independent candidate as she’s well-known for her community work.
The main message in the sentence is that the voter will vote for the independent candidate. The addition of “per se” helps to distinguish her positive view of the independent candidate from any broader claim that she held something against the other parties.
Your chapter on the unnecessary waste of water is thought-provoking per se but not essential or pertinent to your book overall.
Here, the main idea the sentence conveys is that the author’s chapter on unnecessary water waste wasn’t essential to their book. The speaker uses “per se” in an attempt to set off a positive comment on the chapter from a negative comment on how the chapter affected the book overall.
Chronological age per se is not relevant when we look at the development of the child to place him in a class.
Here, while it does have some relevance to class placement, chronological age is not the ultimate determining factor for class placement. We do not consider it on its own, independent of other factors, which is why it is not chronological age “per se” that determines placement. What’s more important is their level of development.
The gymnasts could not get the motions right because their instructor only showed them using pictures rather than the movements per se.
Instead of demonstrating the movements in themselves, “per se,” the instructor only showed them pictures of the movements. As a result, the gymnasts struggled to perform the actual movements correctly.
There are many factors involved in uplifting that poor community, and it is not economic development per se.
In this sentence, the message is that there are many factors involved in uplifting the poor community.
Economic development would be only one factor in a broader list of factors. By adding “per se,” the sentence clarifies that there’s something else beyond economic development as such required to lift the community out of poverty.
Do not Use Per Se in the Place of “So to Speak”
Many people misuse “per se” in everyday speech as a conversational buzzword or to fill in gaps between ideas. Some even think that it sounds intelligent to use a Latin term now and then.
Perhaps the most common misuse of “per se” is to substitute it for “so to speak.” Consider the following two sentences, where the second version shows the incorrect use of “per se.”
He is not allowed to go to the bar. His wife sits on his head, so to speak.
He is not allowed to go to the bar. His wife sits on his head per se.
Appropriate Synonymsfor “Per Se”
Sometimes it is not incorrect to use “per se,” but it might be simpler to use a synonym instead. In the following sentences, we look at English synonyms that you can use instead of “per se.” It is always better to use simple English rather than use terms and words you are not comfortable with.This article is written for strategiesforparents.com.
In some of the examples, it isn’t necessary to change the sentence’s word order, but you” need to reorder others to accommodate the synonym (source).
It is not that I don’t like TV serials as such (per se), but this newly released one is not for me.
It is not these facts as such (per se) that are important.
She was not disappointed per se; she just was not expecting a negative outcome.
She was not necessarily disappointed; she was just not expecting a negative outcome.
Note in the second example that we had to change the word order.
She is not an activist per se, but she is in favor of peaceful demonstrations.
Fundamentally, she is not an activist but is in favor of peaceful demonstrations.
That was her best performance as Juliet, which was her very last performance per se.
That was her best performance as Juliet, which was, in essence, her very last performance.
He is not interested in the measure we are taking in itself (per se), but only in the end product we deliver to him.
This discussion is about the use of glass in buildings and not about architecture per se.
Essentially, this discussion is about the use of glass in buildings and not about architecture.
In the end, our discussion about “per se” boils down to two things. Firstly, it is unnecessary to use the Latin term when you are in a conversation or creating documents unless it is in a legal context. There are several English synonyms that you can use more effectively and simply to convey your meaning.
Secondly, because “per se” is a borrowed term from the original Latin, it must always retain its original spelling, and we can never spell it as “per say.” When we use it, it means “in itself” and refers to something as intrinsically or inherently so.
Definitions of per se. adverb. with respect to its inherent nature. “this statement is interesting per se” synonyms: as such, in and of itself, intrinsically.What is the meaning of as per said? ›
: in accordance with : according to. as per your instructions. Phrases. as per usual.Is it correct to say per? ›
Per can mean according to or in accordance with — so it's not wrong, exactly. People often use it to make their writing more formal, but it sounds fusty. Writing guides usually condemn it as jargon. As per is worse — it's not only fusty but also redundant, which makes it silly.How do you spell Persey? ›
- of 3. adjective (1) ˈpərs. : of a dark grayish blue resembling indigo. per se.
- of 3. adverb. (ˌ)pər-ˈsā, also per-ˈsā, (ˌ)pər-ˈsē : by, of, or in itself or oneself or themselves : as such : intrinsically. per se.
- of 3.
Latin for “by itself,” in other words, inherently. For example, in tort law, a statutory violation is negligence per se. One of the elements a person has to prove in a negligence claim is that the defendant breached their duty owed. There is a duty to obey the law bound up in the duty to act non-negligently.How do you use per correctly? ›
You use per to talk about each one of something. For example, if a vehicle is travelling at 40 miles per hour, it travels 40 miles each hour.How do you use as per said in a sentence? ›
We were not being recognized as artists per say: we have never been in a contemporary setting. It's not my full-time job and we're not relying on revenue from Westwood as a job, per say," says Middleton.Is as per my last email rude? ›
Whether you mean it or not, “per my last email” is a phrase that can come off as rude and passive-aggressive.Is per usual grammatically correct? ›
As usual is the correct term to use. "As per usual" is redundant since either "as usual" and "per usual" mean the same thing.Is it OK to start a sentence with per? ›
Is it okay to begin a sentence with "As per" as in “As per the director's order you are fired”? No. “As per” is ungrammatical; “Per” is sufficient.
However "per" is not exactly equivalent to "for each". It must be followed by a unit of measure. For example, you can say "$10 per piece" and you can say "$10 for each" but you can't say "$10 per". You can even say "$10 per each" and be understood because "each" can be understood as a unit of measure.Why is it called per se? ›
Per se is a phrase taken directly from the Latin, meaning “by itself,” and with the sense of “in and of itself.” Per is a preposition that can mean “through” or “by means of” and se is a reflexive pronoun.What is the plural of per se? ›
perse (countable and uncountable, plural perses)What is the opposite of per se? ›
In the first approach, the easiest to understand the difference is if we understand 'per accidens' as 'coincidental' (and, accordingly, 'per se' as 'non-coincidental'). For example, that a doctor is also a good pianist is coincidental.How is per se used in law? ›
Per Se Rule is simply when one person on whom are the offences or the allegations which pertain to a specific issue is alleged in front of any Court of Law, such alleged person has the onus to prove that such allegation is a falsified one.What is per se rule in law? ›
A type of antitrust analysis used to determine the legality of agreements (written or oral) between competitors. Under the per se rule, certain categories of agreements are presumed to violate antitrust laws, regardless of other factors such as business purpose or competitive benefits.What is a per se violation of the law? ›
In US law, the term illegal per se means that the act is inherently illegal. Thus, an act is illegal without extrinsic proof of any surrounding circumstances such as lack of scienter (knowledge) or other defenses. Acts are made illegal per se by statute, constitution or case law.Does per se need a comma? ›
No. “Per se” means “in itself.” Re-read the sentence substituting “in himself” for “per se: “He wasn't a scientist in himself ….” So no, per se does not need to be preceded by a comma.Is there a comma after per se? ›
It depends on the context in which it's used. In most cases, a comma isn't necessary. If you're in doubt, just replace per se with its English equivalent in the sentence and see whether you'd need the commas.Can you use per se in an essay? ›
Yes, although I would recommend using it only in its original meaning of "in or by itself or themselves". When it is used to mean "as such", it is just a buzzword. If you mean "as such", then write "as such".
Adage, proverb, or saw: a widely known or popular aphorism that has gained credibility by long use or tradition.How do you use per se correctly? ›
You can use 'per se' whenever you are describing something in and of itself. For example, you could say: “Your paragraph on the ethics of the True Crime genre is thought-provoking per se, but not pertinent to your article overall.”Can I use per se in formal writing? ›
Per Se IS the formal usage. It means in, or of, itself, intrinsically. It is from the Latin and is entirely appropriate in a formal document.What is it called when you start every sentence with the same phrase? ›
An anaphora is a rhetorical device in which a word or expression is repeated at the beginning of a number of sentences, clauses, or phrases.What are overused words and phrases called? ›
The very definition of cliché – a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays lack of original thought – means you should rarely, if ever, use them in your writing. And yet, they become clichés for a reason. Content creators love using them. Why?What are wise sayings called? ›
A proverb (from Latin: proverbium) is a simple and insightful, traditional saying that expresses a perceived truth based on common sense or experience. Proverbs are often metaphorical and use formulaic language.