The Meaning of Per Se: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever been confused by the definition of per se? This guide will provide you with all of the info you need on the term per se, including its definition, etymology, example sentences, and more!

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What does the term per se mean?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged English Dictionary, Dictionary, and other dictionary apps, the phrase per se comes from Latin, and means “by itself” or “in and of itself. This adverb phrase is used to mean intrinsically, or fundamentally. According to The Free Dictionary, it is often used to mean “with respect to,” which is used similarly to the phrase in and of itself. 

However, people have begun to use this phrase in modern English as a bit of a placeholder without regard to its inherent meaning. If someone was going to use the phrase properly, they might describe someone as, “Not a bad driver, per se, but someone who gets very nervous on the freeway.” This would mean that the person they are describing is not intrinsically a bad driver, but is someone who gets very anxious at high speeds and therefore makes foolish mistakes on the freeway. People might say something isn’t illegal per se or that something isn’t negligence per se.

The phrase per se can also be used to refer to a legal term called a per se DUI. According to Driving Laws, a per se DUI occurs if a driver has a blood alcohol level above the legal limit. Even if there is no erratic driving or impaired movement, the driver can be given a DUI based on the breathalyzer results alone. In this case, the DUI is considered per se because the person is intrinsically driving under the influence, no matter if it is affecting their driving skills or not.

The phrase per se is also represented in many other languages. Since this term has Latin roots, it is likely that other romance languages that have roots in Latin will also have similar phrases. Many translations of per se are listed below, into both romance and non-romance languages, from Word Sense.

  • Spanish: per se‎
  • Finnish: sinänsä‎, pohjimmiltaan‎
  • Czech: (samo) o sobě‎, samo sebou‎
  • French: en soi‎, per se‎
  • Greek: ως έχει‎, καθεαυτού‎, εξ’ ορισμού‎
  • Russian: сам по себе́‎ (masc.)
  • Danish: i sig selv‎
  • Macedonian: сам по себе‎
  • Persian: به خودی خود‎ (be xodi-e xod), فی‌نفسه‎ (fi-nafseh)
  • Hebrew: כשלעצמו (kshe-le-ats-mo)
  • Estonian: iseseisvalt‎
  • Icelandic: í sjálfu sér‎, út af fyrir sig‎
  • Dutch: op zich‎, per se‎, an sich‎
  • Portuguese: per se‎
  • Japanese: それ自体‎ (sore jitai)
  • Swedish: i sig‎, per se‎
  • German: per se‎, an sich‎
  • Armenian: ինքնին‎
  • Italian: di per se‎

What is the origin of the phrase per se?

According to Etymonline, the phrase per se was taken directly from Latin in the 1570s to mean by itself, by himself, or by herself. This Latin phrase is translated from the Greek kath auto, from Aristotle. 

Also per Etymonline, the latin word per has been in use since the 1580s to mean through or by means of, though this term was used earlier in certain Latin or French phrases, sometimes represented as par instead of per. This term comes directly form the Latin per meaning through, as in, or during. This comes from the Proto-Indo-European root per meaning “forward.”

Etymonline also states that the word forming element se- comes from the Latin se. This rot means without or apart from, which refers to the Latin reflexive pronoun sed. Sed comes from the Proto-Indo-European root sed, which is a third person reflexive pronoun that was also sometimes represented as se- or swe-.

What are synonyms to the term per se?

There are many different words and phrases that can be used in place of the term per se. These are called synonyms, which are words and phrases that have the same meaning as another word or phrase. Synonyms are very useful tools in English grammar, because they can help people to avoid repeating themselves as well as help people to expand their vocabulary. This list of synonyms for the term per se is provided by Thesaurus

  • singularly
  • intrinsically
  • solely
  • fundamentally
  • essentially
  • by and of itself
  • by definition
  • in essence
  • as such
  • independently
  • virtually
  • by its very nature
  • alone
  • of itself
  • by itself
  • in itself

How can the term per se be used in a sentence?

The term per se can be used in many different situations. It is a very common term that is often used to describe things that are intrinsic or inherent. In this first example, Marianna is talking to Norah about the upcoming exam.

Marianna: Yeah, Sam found the tests Mr. Hutchison has been using online. He’s done the first three from this one website so we are all going to study off the fourth one. We bet it’s gonna be exactly the same. We found the answer key and everything.

Norah: Marianna, that’s cheating! You can’t do that! You’re going to get in huge trouble.

Marianna: It’s not cheating, per se. It’s being resourceful.

Norah: Yeah, try telling that to the school board. They see kids with test answers, they think cheating. It really isn’t worth it.

Overall, the term per se is a Latin phrase that means in and of itself, intrinsically, or essentially. This term is commonly used at the beginning or end of a sentence to refer to a person or thing’s inherent nature, and is also commonly used as a legal term.