The Purposes of “Per”

By Mark Nichol

Per (from a Latin word meaning “by,” “by means of,” or “through”) is widely employed in English, but it — or a phrase in which it appears — isn’t necessarily the best option. Here’s a guide to using (or not using) per.

In popular usage, per is appropriate in relation to figures (“65 miles per hour,” “24 points per game,” “three items per person,” and so on). It can also, alone or preceded by as, mean “according to,” as in “Per your instructions, I deposited the check” and “She complied as per the usual procedure.” Per is also an adverb synonymous with apiece; though its use in this form may seem like dialect in which the final word of the sentence is dropped (“I’ll let you have them for five dollars per”), it’s standard usage.

In its most common function, however, it is sometimes easily replaced by a, as in “The position pays $75,000 a year” rather than “per year” or “I exercise three times a week” rather than “per week.”

Per as part of a set phrase taken directly from Latin is usually pedantic in popular usage; see the list below for recommendations about the use of such phrases:

Per annum: This is an unnecessary substitution for the perfectly useful phrases “a year,” “each year,” or even “per year.”
Per capita: This direct borrowing of the Latin phrase meaning “by the head” is commonly employed in financial and demographic contexts, but “per person” is better in general.
Per centum: The Latin precursor of the semiabbreviation percent more clearly signals the original meaning (“for each hundred”) but is obsolete.
Per contra: This phrase, meaning “in contrast to,” is best reserved for legal contexts — and only technical ones, at that.
Per diem: The translations for this phrase are “by the day” or “for the day,” and except in reference to a daily stipend, there’s no reason not to use daily (especially as an adjective).
Per mill: In this phrase, mill is from the Latin term mille, meaning “a thousand,” so the term is akin to percent but spelled as two words. It’s appropriate only in technical usage, however.
Per se: Outside of legal usage, this term — sometimes misspelled “per say” by those who mistakenly assume that it refers to the act of speaking — means “in itself,” as in “I don’t object to the idea per se.” (Note that, unlike as is the case when the English form is used — “I don’t object to the idea, in itself” — no punctuation frames the term.)

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6 Responses to “The Purposes of “Per””

  • Mary Sayler, Director Christian Poets & Writers

    I enjoy your excellent articles but don’t think I ever told you so! This one on “Per” reminds me to say thanks and also reminded me of the word plays and puns that often occur in the Bible. As a lover of word plays, I couldn’t help but think of the “Per Son” of Christ. Thanks!

  • thebluebird11

    I agree that many of these expressions are (or should be) reserved for specific techincal or legal uses, but I do take exception to “per diem.” This often has a different connotation from “daily.” I specifically refer to its use for per diem jobs or per diem workers (e.g. teachers). Yes, they are called in for a day, but it’s not “daily,” i.e., not every day, not on a regular daily basis. They are called in on a per-day basis, only when needed. So a per diem worker works only on an as-needed basis, for that day. The fact that it is on an as-needed basis is understood when the term per diem is used.

  • Mark Nichol

    thebluebird11:

    Thanks for your note. I alluded to your point in the phrase “except in reference to a daily stipend,” but I should have extended the discussion to be more clear.

  • Sally

    An amusing anecdote is told of a former Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies (though I imagine it’s been told of others in the commonwealth).

    As a young barrister (= trial lawyer in US), Menzies was acting in a divorce case. It went against his client, and the judge, insufficiently well-acquainted with Latin perhaps, instructed Menzies that his client would have to pay a certain amount “per anum”!

    Menzies’ reply? “Well, Your Honour, I’ve heard of ‘paying through the nose,’ but really…”

  • thebluebird11

    @Mark: …and sorry I typo’d the “technical.” I guess I’m not perfect, what a blow…
    @Sally…now THAT is funny! It reminds me of an old golfer joke…never mind. 😉

  • John

    I disagree on “per capita”, which is generally used in the context of national statistics to mean “divided by the population of the country”, which isn’t necessarily the same as “per person”.

    For example, say Utopia issues a flat salary to its politicians, and one in 1,000 people is a politician. “Utopia pays its politicians $100,000 per person” would imply an entirely different situation to “Utopia pays its politicians $100,000 per capita”.

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