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Comma before or after “per se” — The Ultimate Guide

Comma before or after “per se” — The Ultimate Guide

English is a strange language and often seems to be made up mostly of other languages.

There are lots of loanwords in English. Fancy some sushi? Maybe a hamburger or a croissant?

Let’s set the food examples aside and focus on something more intrinsically interesting: the Latin phrase “per se.”
 

Do you need a comma before “per se”?

Per se is an adverb meaning “by itself.” There’s no need to place a comma before this phrase. To use “per se,” simply place it after the word or phrase it modifies. In other words, while a comma may be necessary if other grammatical rules require one “per se” itself doesn’t per se require one.
 

Examples

“I thought you said you sold the cow!”
“Well, not per se…”

Magic beans are a kind of payment, but probably not what Jack’s mother had in mind in this fairy tale retelling.

“The beans per se weren’t a good deal, but when planted in the ground they sprouted into a stalk.”

Here, “per se” is used in a positive sense, suggesting that the beans by themselves weren’t useful until planted, when soil and water transformed them.
 

Comma placement before “per se” in more detail

There are times you might need a comma in front of this phrase. However, these have more to do with other grammatical rules than “per se” itself.

Although there are a few edge cases, the main one that’s likely to appear is when “per se” is used as an aside.
 

“Per se” as an aside

If the phrase “per se” is not essential information, it should be set off from the sentence with a comma in front of and after it. If “per se” comes at the end of a sentence and isn’t essential, a single comma in front makes that clear.

Given the meaning of “per se,” this typically serves to draw attention to the fact that the thing it modifies is, in fact, true, and someone is trying to hedge their words.

Examples

“I didn’t think the beans were a good deal, per se, but I had to go home with something.”
Here, Jack tries to justify his trade of the cow for those magic beans.
“I didn’t steal the giant’s golden harp, per se.”
You’re not fooling anybody, Jack!

Again, in both these cases, the comma in front of “per se” is because the grammatical rules for nonessential information, rather than the grammatical rules for “per se,” require one. In most, if not all, cases, you will not use a comma before “per se.”

 

Do you need a comma after “per se”?

Grammatically speaking, “per se” works like any other adverbial phrase. This means you don’t need a comma after it unless there’s some other grammatical reason for one.

If you find yourself getting tripped up by this phrase’s non-English nature, one easy trick is to replace it with its English equivalent (“by itself”) and see if a comma is needed.

To reiterate, there’s nothing about per se by itself (pun intended) that requires a comma.
 

Examples

“My roommate wasn’t a bad singer per se. She just insisted on being drunk first and that was when the trouble started.”

Here, no comma is added before “per se” because no comma is needed. “per se” modifies the phrase “bad singer” without a comma just fine.

“Commas aren’t confusing per se.”

Again, no comma is needed in this sentence for “per se” to be used correctly.

 

The meaning of “per se”

If you’re confused to see this phrase presented as an English word, that’s because it’s technically not. Instead, “per se” is a direct borrowing from Latin where per means “by” and se means “itself.”

Put them together and you get “per se,” or “by itself.” In English today, this phrase is typically used in the negative (“not per se”), where it can also mean “not as such.”

“Per se” is a little intellectual and is usually reserved for academic or legal writing, where it carries an even more specific and complicated meaning.

Since those are two types of English that are famously complicated, perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to figure out where commas go when you use “per se” in a sentence.