I use perfunctorily a lot.

Then I learned I use it wrong.

I thought it meant to do something dispassionately or because you have to or to go through the motions. But actually it means

carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection. (NOAD)

Now, this isn't too different from the meaning I thought, because if you are doing something dispassionately or by obligation or are just going through the motions then you will carry it out with minimum effort or reflection, but the definition does not capture all that I thought it did.

What is the word that I want?

I fear I am not being clear. I fear that my desired definition and the real definition are too similar.

My desired definition includes "carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection" but it also includes a sense of obligation. You can do something with minimal effort because you want to do it but are just low in energy or because you are distracted or because you are hurried. The word I seek would make clear that the minimal effort is due to a lack of care—perhaps even more than a lack of care: maybe even disdain for the task.

This word would probably perfectly describe how most of us would perform tasks at a minimum wage job we have held too long. We would do it, maybe even well, but without any real care for it.

Another example. I ask this question now because I was going to write that people often pray "perfunctorily"—it is not heartfelt; it is done because people think that prayer is supposed good and important, but don't actually feel that it is.

I tried to find the word I want.

  • Cursorily, briefly, hastily include an aspect of speed. The word I seek doesn't need to mean the action happened quickly; indeed the lack of desire might even mean it happens slowly.
  • Dispassionately does not incorporate the sense of obligation.
  • Obligatorily does not incorporate the lack of thoughtfulness. You can do something obligatorily and meticulously.
  • Going through the motions is probably closest but, being a phrase, is difficult to turn into an adverb or even adjective. (Alternate, lesser answer would give me going through the motions in adverb form.)
  • I think obligatorily connotes a certain lack of passion...
    – DyingIsFun
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 2:45
  • 4
    By the way M-W gives a definition of perfunctory that fits your bill: "used to describe something that is done without energy or enthusiasm because of habit or because it is expected."
    – DyingIsFun
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 2:47
  • I was being too cutesy and mirroring the reason against dispassionately. I will fix. More meant that you can do something obligatorily and thoughtfully
    – Unrelated
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 2:47
  • 1
    Do you really want me to phone in another answer?
    – Mazura
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 8:19
  • It makes sense to check in more than a single dictionary, especially when the sense you have been comfortable using isn't given by one. And NOAD does give: go through the motions ... do something perfunctorily, without any enthusiasm or commitment; simulate an action: a child goes through the motions of washing up. Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 8:42

4 Answers 4


From M-W:

perfunctory: used to describe something that is done without energy or enthusiasm because of habit or because it is expected [emphasis added]

From Dictionary.com:

perfunctory: performed merely as a routine duty; hasty and superficial [emphasis added]

These definitions of perfunctory fit your original sense well. You weren't using perfunctorily incorrectly.

  • This is general reference. Almost any other dictionary shows clearly that the word OP suggests has the meaning he requires. Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 8:40
  • @EdwinAshworth Not so, the definitions in some dictionaries (e.g., Oxford Dictionaries, Macmillan) don't include the sense of obligation the OP is seeking. Some do, some don't. I tried to direct my answer to the OP's question. Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 12:52
  • Yet if OP had googled 'perfunctory meaning', they would (assuming they see what I do) have seen as the third hit: 'Perfunctory | Definition of Perfunctory by Merriam-Webster www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perfunctory —used to describe something that is done without energy or enthusiasm because of habit or because it is expected.' I'd say that's general reference. Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 14:46
  • @EdwinAshworth Agree. That's precisely what I did and what I referenced. Thanks. Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 17:22
  • Silenus probably did exactly the same. And, as OP should have done this, added a 'comment' rather than an 'answer'. Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 18:56

Doing one's duty

She went to church dutifully to please her mother.

I did my duty.

It was a dutiful prayer, but not a heartfelt one.


He prayed in a robotic act/expression of piety. (I am using the adjective of the noun robot).


1). A machine that...does mechanical, routine tasks on command; [and]

2). A person who acts and responds in a mechanical , routine manner... [as in an act/expression of piety].



Your use of perfunctorily is fine, but as an alternative you can use rote to convey the meaning you were intending:



  1. routine; a fixed, habitual, or mechanical course of procedure:

the rote of daily living.


  1. proceeding mechanically and repetitiously; being mechanical and repetitious in nature; routine; habitual: rote performance; rote implementation;

His behavior became more rote with every passing year.

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