Hey, It's Per Se, Not Per Say

Per se is a Latin expression which means "in and of itself". The se is pronounced to rhyme with "say", but it isn't spelt that way. Someone urgently needs to tell the internet.

Picture: julesho

It's understandable how this error comes about — if you've only ever heard the expression, it's unlikely you would guess the correct spelling. And that's why we see the wrong version pop up in news reports:

"I don't think it's the temperature, per say," he said.

No, he didn't say that.

One tactic to consider is to always place the expression in italics, indicating its origin in a foreign language. While per se is arguably so widely used that this isn't a strict requirement, it will draw the reader's attention to the fact that it's an unusual phrase.

Another solution is not to use it, replacing it with "in and of itself" or a similar phrase, or rewriting your sentence entirely. That will potentially make it easier to read. But if you do decide to use it, spell it correctly. Accuracy matters.

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


    They actually write "per say" in news reports? Really?

    Whoever wrote that and also the editor that approved it need to be fired.

      The worst that I've seen on the news was "fo par".

    Someone urgently needs to tell the internetWhy, is it life threatening...?
    Plus, if he said "per say" how do you know how he would have spelt it..?

    Last edited 20/01/14 2:27 pm

    Real talk: per se is the most amazing restaurant in the world.

    I've seen 'per say', 'persay' and 'pursay' used in a professional context. When you can't spell a term, let alone explain what it means, you probably shouldn't be using it.

    Sometimes people spell wrong, it's definately not something to loose your mind over.

      The whole point of this column is to point out nit-picky errors and correct them :-)

      I seriously can't tell if "loose" was a well timed joke in regards to a previous Mind Your Language article, or simply a genuine mistake.

        If we're going there, make sure you add "definately" to the list of sins too. At least it wasn't the usual "defiantly" I see so often in forums and emails.

          How often have I seen lately the use of the word quite when they mean quiet or recieve instead of receive, I before e except after c. Really we need the education department to implement spelling bees each week and word games to teach the correct use of words that sound the same but are spelt differently.

      Indeed they do (e.g. your 'definately'),

      Sometimes they also make humorous grammatical errors as well. I would expect someone to lose their mind, rather than loose it.

      Its not something for people to get anywhere near as stressed about as they do (although to/too/two, ; there/their/they're, and your/you're are things that are frustrating when people get them wrong)

    i havent seen per say, but a few times recently i have seen 'phased' instead of fazed. or 'unphased' instead of unfazed. and don't forget our old friend 'shoe-in' instead of the correct, shoo-in. i see that all the time. its funny. and yes i know i haven't typed this properly.

    One tactic to consider is to always place the expression in italics, indicating its origin in a foreign language.

    You could do a MYL on that topic alone. The Style manual describes deciding when to italicise foreign loan words as a "perennial problem".

    Per se is an interesting case, because - like a lot of Latin load words - it has nearly become detatched comletely from the Latin. Many of the "per" phrases aren't italicised, like "per annum" - they're no longer considered loan words, but are just English phrases. And "per" itself gets used as an English word: "per our correspondence", "per the contract", etc.

    Still, no excuse for a news outlet spelling it wrong - offenders should be flogged with their own style guide and the OED.

    Last edited 21/01/14 8:20 am

    I keep reading "for all intensive purposes" lately.

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