July 16, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Per Se

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:03 am by dlseltzer

I’ve had ‘per se’ in my head for a little while now (and David O, I’m sorry, and I promise to reply to your question next week), and it’s making me a little crazy. We discussed ‘per se’ before, before but that was back in 2010, and I have to admit, I might have been a little rude and a little thoughtless when it came to ‘per se.’ This is what I said back then:

Now, about per se (pronounced but not spelled persay). It means ‘intrinsically’ or ‘as such’ and comes from the Latin per meaning ‘through’ or ‘by’ and se meaning ‘it,’ literally, ‘by itself.’ There is nothing incorrect about using per se, but it is weak and adds nothing to your writing.

This is where I might have been rude. It is not incorrect as I said, but it’s also not necessarily weak. Sometimes it adds context to a sentence.

For example:

The inclusion of lobster will not elevate a simple meal into a transcendent one.

While I don’t necessarily agree with that statement (for me, lobster is almost always transcendent), the addition of ‘per se’ changes the emphasis and, thus, the meaning.

The inclusion of lobster per se will not elevate a simple meal into a transcendent one.

Now, we are saying that lobster, by itself, will not elevate the simple meal. In other words:

The inclusion of a perfectly cooked bite of lobster will elevate a simple meal into a transcendent one.

Makes me hungry just thinking about it.

Let’s try another example:

A linen tablecloth does not a great meal make.

The setting doesn’t do much for the meal. Now:

A linen tablecloth per se does not a great meal make.

We need more than a tablecloth to make a great meal. But:

A linen tablecloth upon which sits a sumptuous nine course dinner makes a great meal.

[Please note that while we put commas around the English version, ‘by itself’ ‘per se’ does not call for any punctuation.]

So I am sorry for my rudeness and my rush to judgement. I hope this new entry appeases the gods of the Michelin stars.

This week’s wlut is dedicated to all of my friends, especially the friends who are accompanying me to Thomas Keller’s New York 3-Michelin-star restaurant on Saturday. Its name: Per Se.

Bon appetit!

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