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Comma before “per se”: The Definitive Guide

Comma before “per se”: The Definitive Guide

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A well-known rhetoric tool is an anaphora which is the strategic repetition of word sequence that drives emphasis.

In particular, reflexive pronouns such as “itself” and “themselves” are probably some of the most commonly used anaphoric words in everyday English.

“Per se” is an anaphorical Latin phrase that roughly means “by itself” which is used in emphasizing attributes without directly using reflexive pronouns.

To address this linguistic nuance, this post particularly focuses on comma-related guidelines as well as the usage of “per se” in sentences.


Do we need a comma before “per se”?

More often than not, we need not place a comma before “per se”. Some cases, however, would require a pre-comma placement such as when it is used in series, within and after a parenthesis, as well as after an introductory expression. In contrast, commas are omissible when it is used after the subject and at the end of a sentence so as not to disrupt the rhythm in a rather formal text. A pre-comma is unnecessary, too, when it is used as the last word in an introductory expression, but a post-comma must be used instead.


Comma before per se

“Per se” is a Latin word adapted in English which is chiefly used in law-related texts to denote the meaning of “in and of itself” or simply “by itself”.

It is the result of the functional combination of prepositions and reflexive pronouns, thereby creating a rather flexible adverb in the process.

Since the word is based on the Latin language, errors of its usage and application are not uncommon.

The phrase “per se” has become a buzzphrase and a filler expression in modern-day English.

It has become a convenient substitute for “so to speak,” “you know,” and even “exactly,” which is most likely because of its fancy and eloquent connotation.

The second word’s pronunciation is also homophonic to the verb “saywhich has also perpetuated the passable misconception. 

Literally translating, “per” may denote the meaning of through, by, in, or of, while “se” could mean itself, herself, himself, or themselves.

Commas do not usually come before “per se,” but rather after it instead.

Although infrequent, a few instances may induce a pre-comma insertion, and they are listed in the following sub-sections.

Comma Before Per Se


“Per se” in series

A serial list of more than two words or phrases requires mandatory and optional commas in marking the segregation of entities.

The Oxford comma, which may be inserted before the coordinating conjunction, is omissible as long as it does not create any misinterpretation.

When per se is included in a serial list, particularly after the first entity and before the conjunction, necessitates a post-comma placement.

Intrinsically, per se(,) and by its nature are synonymous.


“Per se” in parenthesis

A parenthesis is a grammatically-irrelevant stylistic device that aims to clarify, understate, digress, or add humor to the statement.

These parenthetical elements are either accidentally or intentionally inserted by the writer to create emphasis and evoke persuasion.

A writer may opt to use “per se” as a parenthetical adverb to highlight an idea mentioned in the sentence, which oftentimes is the subject or object.

When “per se” is parenthetically used, a comma is placed before, as well as after it.

It is not the ignorance of the law, per se, that creates liability; it is the lack of attempt to become aware of it that does.

Parenthetical expressions are always singled out with commas, again, to draw out the emphatic purpose and the grammatical dispensability.


“Per se” after a parenthesis

Now that parenthetical expressions are explained, we can infer that a pre-comma is also necessary before “per se” when it comes after a parenthesis.

Since mid-sentence parenthetical expressions end with commas, it follows that the same comma precedes “per se” when used afterward.

Contrary to the popular belief, the object of addiction, such as a drug or an activity, per se does not magnetically attract humans.

In the sentence above, the parenthetical expression is added to clarify the meaning of the subject, and “per se” refers back to the parenthesis and the subject.


“Per se” after an introductory expression

Introductory expressions are words, phrases, or clauses that aim to connect sentences or create an initial context to a statement.

Adverbial connectors, conjunctions, sentence fragments, and dependent clauses may be used to start a sentence off.

These expressions are offset with commas to signal a pause to the reader and thereby providing spare time for the initial context to sink in.

Thus, when “per se” follows introductory elements, a pre-comma placement is essentially done.

In particular, per se is of Latin origin, not Greek.


When is a comma unnecessary before “per se”

As “per se” is syntactically recognized as an adverb of manner that describes how something happens by referring back to a word, phrase, or even a clause.

As it is a slightly complex adverb, we may simply think of its meaning as a single-word adverbial equivalent to “intrinsically.”

That said, it is easier to understand how and where to use it in a sentence.

Its main purpose, again, is to reflect a contextually-implied idea without using agentive prepositions nor reflexive pronouns.

Per se may usually appear after the subject, at the end of the sentence or clause, at the end of a parenthetical insertion, or even as part of a subject or object.

When used these ways, a pre-comma won’t be necessary, but a post-comma may be placed.

Let’s define these circumstances in detail.


When “per se” is used post-subject 

We may put “per se” after the subject or subjects to anaphorically describe the manner in which they happen.

“Per se” is often found in this position when the writer wants to show more focus or emphasis on the adverb.

And, a pre-comma is unimportant in this case so as not to create a choppy sentence.

Arguments and misunderstandings per se are not entirely unhealthy.


When “per se” is used in sentence-final position

Since “per se” is an adverb, it may also be positioned at the end of the sentence which would mean the same.

The difference with the earlier example, though, is that the adverb becomes deemphasized when it is placed at the end of the sentence as opposed to placing it earlier.

Arguments and misunderstandings are not entirely unhealthy per se.

The last two types of construction differ from the parenthetical usage in terms of formality.

This means that the comma omission around “per se” entails a more formal and neutral tone compared to using it parenthetically. 


When “per se” is used in introductory clause-final potion

The next example demonstrates the comma placement after “per se” in more complex sentence construction.

According to structural form, the sentence below is an example of a complex sentence type introduced by a subordinating conjunction.

“Per se” may also be used to end an introductory dependent clause which does not require a pre-comma placement, but rather afterward.

While there is no direct genetic evidence to the cause of alcoholism per se, a hard-to-pinpoint subgroup demonstrated that genes can indirectly influence the susceptibility to alcoholism instead.



Since language breathes arbitrariness and novelty, humans invariably create expressions to better emphasize and represent thoughts.

As language is the dress of thought, it is part of the human responsibility to preserve languages, even dead ones like Latin.

Hence, despite the misuse of some words, language experts and educators must do their part in facilitating linguistic conservation.