• Performed out of ingrained habit or to fulfill routine expectation, without enthusiasm, personal meaning, or intentional investment

  • Meeting only minimum standards; poorly done


As we write this "usage" section, we choose to do our best to make it instructive and engaging, but if we had instead taken it easy and delivered a merely perfunctory paragraph or two, you would probably notice. If this section were perfunctory that would mean that we had done only the bare minimum of what we were expected to do without any real interest in the project, or any concerted effort to do our best. If we wrote a perfunctory section we would just be mindlessly checking off the boxes in our routine process for writing a dictionary entry. That's not a good way to get through anything!

But actually "getting through a thing" is precisely what perfunctory is all about. The word's Latin root describes something which is done as if only to get through with it. In other words, when something is perfunctory it means that the thing is done merely to get the thing done with and out of the way. There is no interest in doing the thing for its own sake or for the sake of anything else. Usually, something perfunctory is done out of habit or routine. For example, most of us are accustomed to instinctively responding with "you too!" or something similar when someone tells us "to have a good day." Sometimes we might genuinely mean what we say, but other times in a state of distraction or minimal engagement we might respond mechanically without any thought or investment. When we respond in the latter way, we have expressed a perfunctory sentiment. Similarly, a salesperson at a retail store might greet every customer with a perfunctory smile. The smile does not actually arise from genuine feeling or interpersonal warmth toward the customer, but rather is a routine duty being performed without enthusiasm.

Perfunctory is also occasionally used more broadly to refer to something which, regardless of the motivation or lack of motivation behind it, has been performed in a slipshod or superficial way. For example, if a window washer were to merely swipe down each window, without working to remove more stubborn dirty spots, he would have done only a perfunctory job. He met the surface level expectations for cleaning a window but didn't go even one step beyond that point. Perhaps it's because cleaning windows has become so routine to him. But even if his careless cleaning arises from some other source we could still describe it as perfunctory. Indeed, any job which is completed only to the lowest possible standards could be described as perfunctory, whether it be window washing, document drafting, or even dictionary writing.

Example: The actor kept his head down as he darted toward his car, giving the paparazzi only a perfunctory wave.

Example: Hank's lawn mowing is little more than perfunctory, but I suppose I'll pay him the promised five dollars anyway.


Perfunctory entered English in the late 16th century. It comes directly from the Late Latin perfunctorius which means "careless" or "sloppy," but which could be literally translated as "like someone who wants to get through something." Perfunctorius derives from perfungus, the past participle of perfungi, which means "to busy oneself in some activity" or "to get through a thing." Perfungi is formed from the prefix per-, meaning "through," and the verb fungi, meaning "act" or "perform" (also the root of the English "function").

Derivative Words

Perfunctorily: This adverb describes an action performed in a perfunctory manner.

Example: After I donated only a dollar to their cause, the fund-raising students washed my car rather perfunctorily.

Perfunctoriness: This noun refers to the quality of being perfunctory.

Example: The perfunctoriness of my carwash was disappointing but hardly unexpected for the price I paid.

In Literature

From Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men:

So I corrected myself, and in much the mood of a priest who looks down with benign pity on the sweat and striving, I entered the Governor's office, and walked past the receptionist and, with a perfunctory knock, into the inside.

In this scene, Warren's protagonist and narrator Jack is entering his boss's office after a crushing loss at the hands of his boss has caused Jack to adopt a new viewpoint of detached materialistic determinism. Perfunctory describes Jack's knock, because Jack knocks out of ingrained habit even though he doesn't pause long enough for the knock to accomplish anything.


  • If everything you do is purely functional, then everything you do is perfunctory.

  • Perfunctory: Carelessly Perform Function


Habit, Routine, Motivation, Work, Attitude

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of perfunctory. Did you use perfunctory in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.