‘Per se’ and how to use it

Popular Latin phrases can be confusing. ‘Per se’, in terms of misspelling and incorrect use, appears to be one of the most baffling of all. This article discusses how to use this term properly within your writing.

EtymologyPer se

‘Per se’ is made up of two Latin terms. ‘Per’ means ‘by’ or ‘through’ whereas ‘se’ translates to ‘itself,’ although can be used interchangeably with ‘herself,’ ‘himself,’ ‘themselves’ etc.

Meaning

The meaning of per se is ‘by itself’ or ‘through itself’ (or herself, himself, themselves etc.) It can also mean, but less commonly, ‘as such.’ For example, ‘she wasn’t trouble per se, but when her friend was around she behaved terribly.’

Improper Use

Perhaps the most common misuse of ‘per se’ is the frequent misspelling. It is often spelled as ‘persay’ or even ‘per-say.’ It is also, like many Latin terms, quite commonly misused. People can often use ‘per se’ in a way that is slightly ‘off;’ for example, they might use it when they don’t quite mean ‘by itself’ or ‘as such’, but instead mean ‘not really’ or ‘not exactly.’ For example, ‘he didn’t say it spitefully per se, but that’s how he meant it.’ Change this sentence to ‘he didn’t say it spitefully exactly, but that’s how he meant it.’ Makes much more sense, doesn’t it? It makes the former sound slightly off.

Correct Use

Make sure you have the correct spelling and do not confuse the term with the way it sounds aloud. Do not misuse it by adding it in just because it makes a more interesting way of getting your point across, but doesn’t necessarily fit the sentence. Only use it when substituting the term for ‘by itself’ or ‘as such’ would work within the sentence just as well. Italicising the term is optional, but not a set in stone rule. As a quick tip, if you are going to use this term in a piece of fiction, save it for the dialogue. In the narrative, unless the use is really called for, it can appear unnecessary and pretentious.