Per Se vs. Per Say: Which Is Correct?

“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).

Early Usage

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).

Image by Bill Oxford via Unsplash

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.

Example 1

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.

Example 2

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.

Example 3

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.

Example 4

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.

Example 5 

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 Synonyms for “Per Se”

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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).

As Such

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.

Necessarily

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.

Fundamentally

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.

In Essence 

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.

In Itself 

He is not interested in the measure we are taking in itself (per se), but only in the end product we deliver to him.

Essentially

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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