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Using expressions from Latin is a common theme in academia. Expressions like in/ex vivo, in vitro or in situ are very common in biomedical articles, since they are very concise way of expressing some concept. There are however other expressions which have pretty much direct translations in English, and in some cases not even much longer in number of words/characters.

I have heard conflicting opinions on the use of the phrase per se and wanted to get more thoughts and ideally a generally applicable guideline for authors?

Edit: just wanted to mention that this is not necessarily for my own writing, the inspiration for the question came from a manuscript written by collaborators.

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    Of course, before using per se, be sure you know what it means and how it is normally used. Don't just put in arbitrary phrases ex post facto in order to sound de rigueur. – GEdgar Mar 27 at 12:20
  • @GEdgar I know what the phrase means, and that's why I suggest that there are perfectly fine words in the English language to use instead – posdef Mar 27 at 12:23
  • Using any phrase as relevant ie QED is useful in maths / engineering – Solar Mike Mar 27 at 12:31
  • Following from @GEdgar, correct usage of per se is fine, but I find usage to be indirect, irrelevant, suggestive, ... For instance, an example from en.wiktionary.org/wiki/per_se states As your substitute teacher, my issue is not about your respect for me per se, but to see that you are not causing disruptions for other students or giving me a bad impression of yourself, which leaves me wondering what the teacher is really thinking. I'll reiterate: Correct usage is fine. But, I'm left wondering whether avoiding per se is good advice. – user2768 Mar 27 at 12:58
  • Given that English is, more and more, not the mother tongue of many of those reading you article, using Latin phrases is likely to confuse more than help that portion of your audience. Clear, concise language is likely better. Yes, it goes against all those years I studied Latin. If in doubt, ask around of your colleagues who are not native English (or American) speakers. As a further test, I suggest that many younger people have not encountered the Latin phrases nearly as often as some of us older folk did. – Jon Custer Mar 27 at 14:19
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I guess my advice would be to write in the way that seems most natural to you and gets your ideas across efficiently rather than worrying about the "word police."

If a reviewer objects then you can make a change, or not, as you see fit.

Clearly objectionable terms would be an exception, of course, but reviewers will point those out pretty regularly.

I think it is a fair statement to say that language rules evolved from language usage and not the other way around.

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As with all writing, it is critical that the audience for the work be considered. A very challenging situation that is somewhat unusual to academia is that in many areas, the field in question is fundamentally international and does not necessarily read/speak English at an extremely advanced level. At the same time, the audience is expected to otherwise be highly educated in some specific area of expertise.

If this were something like journalism, the advice would along the lines of writing such that someone who reads at an 8th grade English reading level would be able to understand close to everything in the article. This sort of advice is insufficient to an international audience. For example, I used the term "8th grade" as if everyone outside the US would or should have any idea that I mean the level of formal education expected of 13-14 year olds who have been raised as primarily native speakers of English.

The result is that the best advice I've ever heard is that terms of art which should be familiar to people in the field you are writing to are OK generally, but should be rethought if you experience problems being understood among your peers. This means that terms like "in vivo" and "in vitro" in biological science is fine, as would "a priori" and "a posteriori" in fields where logic and statistics are the norm.

On flip side, as a writer this means that if you have experience in multiple areas it can feel like you need to write with one hand tied behind your back. You might want to say "ipse dixit", but unless your field is philosophy you are probably going to lose people. You might want to passingly refer to "sublimation", but unless you are writing in psychology you need to at least define the term if you can't avoid it, especially if you are writing to a field where there are both physicists and psychologists because they both use the same term to refer to completely different concepts.

The other thing to be aware of is that historically Latin, Greek, and French terms were used heavily, especially in Europe up through at least a good portion of the 1900s, because classically educated people were expected to have been taught these languages as part of their upper-class - often aristocratic - upbringing. To not know these languages was to be rather woefully ignorant, and conveniently also an indicator of being from the inferior lower classes who generally weren't seen as fit to be scholars anyway. It happened to be also during this time that much of what we now know as academic fields were delineated, and so whatever terms and culture was common at the time ended up being adopted into the permanent history of that field, for better or worse.

Now academia is not strictly a European affair, and many of us are no longer particularly enamored of the strict class systems of snobbishness and birth-right aristocracy that was previously accepted as the natural order of things. Since academic disciplines have spread throughout the world English has become the "lingua franca", but learning English, Latin, Greek, and French is now the rarity among academics worldwide outside of a very small set of fields.

So if you want to be well understood, this can mean having to force yourself to write - or at least rewrite - in a way that isn't actually very natural or even pleasing to you as the writer. I have found no solution to this, save to remind myself that it is more important that readers focus their energies on understanding the important technical aspect of my work - even if it means I do not get the visceral pleasure derived from crafting an eloquent turn of phrase that deliciously references both Rick and Morty and the cult of Pythagoras all at once. Kill your darlings, even if they are Latin masterpieces.

  • This is perfect advice. Still, I would have thought "per se" is a rather common expression, not particularly field dependent. – Andrés E. Caicedo Mar 27 at 16:23

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