Making Sense of English Grammar - How to Correctly Use "Per Se"

Have you ever heard someone use the term "per se" in conversation? Probably so. Engage in a friendly debate or informative conversation and chances are it won't be long before you hear someone say itBut are they using it correctly? The answer is probably no.

More often than not, people blatantly misuse this term (per se) without even realizing it. Misused terms like this are often used incorrectly because they're misunderstood. We use them but don't know what they actually mean. We just use the terms based on how we've heard them used (or likely, misused) in past conversations. We hear someone say a word or phrase we don't know. Maybe we've heard it before, but we have no clue what it means. We've never looked it up or heard anyone explain it, so we just try to get a rough understanding based off what the speaker is saying. That way we don't look stupid, right?

It's kind of like fill in the blank. We listen to what the speaker is saying, and because our brains haven't cataloged a meaning for the term, when we hear it, we fill the "space" in with a word or meaning that seems to fit--contextual interpretation. From then on, whenever we hear that new word or phrase, our brains will likely immediately reference the meaning we assigned to it when we "filled in the blank". But this is dangerous when it comes to learning new words AND using them accurately and effectively. Sometimes we might get lucky and come up with a close synonym based off of the context, but many times we'll be way off the mark. It's always better to check with Google or a dictionary if we're uncertain of the meaning of a word. Nothing wrong with not knowing.

In this article, we're specifically talking about the widespread misuse of per se. Here's how it's often used:

"She's not drop-dead gorgeous, per se, but she's not ugly either," or;

"I didn't say unequivocal, I just said it wasn't vague, per se."

Maybe you've heard it other ways too!

In the above examples, if we decide what per se means based on context, it seems to mean something along the lines of exactly or necessarily or specifically. "She's not drop-dead gorgeous, necessarily..." "...I just said it wasn't vague, specifically," etc. You get the idea. You can loosely substitute those three words or equivalent terms for "per se" in the above sentences and they seem to make sense. Cool.

Here's the problem: per se is used in a completely and absolutely incorrect way in both of those sentences. It's used so incorrectly that you would probably never guess the correct meaning based off of the context. Most of the time it's brought into conversation, per se is misused. Per se is a Latin phrase, meaning "by itself, in itself, of itself". If that hasn't made it mind-bogglingly clear that the way per se is typically used is jarringly inaccurate, let me illustrate.

Let's take the example sentences and substitute the correct definition, to see how it sounds.

"She's not drop-dead gorgeous, by herself, but she's not ugly either." Hmm. That definitely doesn't work. It's not the same meaning as the original sentence. Let's try the other one.

"I didn't say unequivocal, I just said not vague, in and of itself." Maybe this one flows a little better, but the meaning is still way off.

So the next logical question would be: "How does one go about using per se correctly!" Well, examples are always nice, so let's try a few. Here's a correct use of per se"Law, per se, does not necessarily correlate with ethics." This sentence is saying that law in its own right, standing alone, in and of itself, isn't intrinsically ethical. "Law, in and of itself, does not necessarily correlate with ethics." See? That makes sense!

Let's try one more. "The car was not gaudy, per se, but the paint clashed horribly with brightly colored homes on the avenue." Here the sentence is saying that the car wasn't a gaudy car, but it looked that way because of the colors around it. "The car was not gaudy, by itself, but the paint...."

Now for the moment of truth! Can YOU tell when per se is used correctly? Check this statement: "She wasn't angry, per se, but she sure wasn't happy about it!" Is this a correct use of per se?

Nope, it's not! If you thought this was wrong, you're catching on! How about this one? "The coffee shop was quaint, per se, but he thought the coffee tasted burnt." If you said correct, you were right!

Good job! Now you have a pretty good working understanding of the definition of per se and how it should be used. If you catch your friends using per se incorrectly, tell them how it's done!

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Dave Child

Dave is the founder of Readable.io, and has been building websites since the early 90s. He's one of those fortunate people who gets to do what he loves for a living.

       


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