What is the French equivalent of the expression "go through the motions" in the sense provided below?


go through the motions (informal disapproving): to do something without thinking it is very important or having much interest in it:

E.g. He says he's been investigating my complaint, but I feel he's just going through the motions.

or more precisely here


  • The answers below show that there is no direct, unambiguous translation, which means that you need to provide context. Mar 20, 2019 at 9:43

5 Answers 5



"To go through the motions" means to do something in such a way that every step in the sequence of operations or tasks involved is addressed or let's say most of them, the most important ones, but each step is taken care of willy nilly, without a real intent to do a good job of it; in other words work of mediocre quality could very well be the result. The French equivalent appears difficult to determine; it could range from "bâcler" as one extreme to "faire qqc superficiellement" (reverso).

  • bâcler
  • faire qqc sans gout
  • faire qqc superficiellement


There is another aspect to the meaning of this locution and it is not taken into account by the above; it is brought to our attention by user 3177's answer. This added acception makes abstraction of any possible bad quality of the work undertaken or of how well is carried out the activity that's gone through in such a way that is justified saying that the person is going through the motions. The translation proposed by user 3177 is then appropriate (machinalement, machinal). Numerous expressions have been gathered below as all might supply a good possibility of translation; however they must be adapted, slightly modified according to the context.

  • faire machinalement
  • faire qqc sans y croire
  • faire qqc sans s'y intéresser
  • faire qqc par routine
  • faire qqc parce qu'il faut le faire (un peu familier)
  • faire qqc par acquis
  • faire qqc pour la forme
  • faire qqc sans bonne volonté
  • faire qqc sans conviction
  • ne pas y mettre de cœur


  • The breaking up with her boyfriend had caused in her a terrible angst, a dread of the future she couldn't overcome; she didn't do anything anymore in her usual way, she simply went through the motions in a sort of mental haze she couldn't close her mind to.

  • Sa rupture avec son amant avait causé en elle une peur quasi neurotique, une peur du futur quelle trouvait impossible de rejeter ; elle ne faisait plus rien de sa façon habituelle et tout dans ses actions était machinal, enveloppée qu'elle était dans une sorte de brouillard mental duquel elle ne pouvait s'extraire.


There is a third meaning of the exression which is quite different of the connected meanings in "A" and "B" : to simulate by gestures or movement (Oxford Dictionary). A basic translation into French of this latter would be simuler. Other possibilities are given below.

  • simuler
  • faire la mimique
  • imiter


  • The nurse put the dummy and utensils on the table and went through the motions of changing a baby's diapper.

  • L'infirmière mit le mannequin et les ustensiles sur la table et simula l'acte de changer la couche d'un bébé.


There is apparently a fourth possibility and that would be "to fake", "to sham", "to pretend", which I do not get out of any source I can access but by back-translation from the reverso dictionary which gives as the French meaning faire semblant and also from the Oxford dictionary in one of its definitions, "*make a pretence**".

  • The clerk went through the motions of looking for the receipt in the file, found it but left it in the file and then told the client it was missing.

  • L'employé fit semblant de chercher le reçu dans le dossier, le trouva mais le laissa dans le dossier puis dit au client qu'il manquait.

  • 1
    N.B. There's no connection to quality in the English expression.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jan 12, 2019 at 13:48
  • @LukeSawczak It seems that this is true only for some of the possibilities of use, those taken into account in the second section in my answer; I say that because a definition from the Oxford dictionary is "do something perfunctorily or superficially; nevertheless, your remark is useful, as it understates a wanting classification of the expressions in my answer.
    – LPH
    Jan 12, 2019 at 15:12
  • 1
    By "superficial" they don't mean shoddy, but literally having the surface, the actions, without the underlying thought. I suppose that could lead to work with less attention to detail, but we normally use the phrase for an action that someone is able to do automatically because they've already gotten the basics. (It's true that someone "going through the motions" doesn't produce extraordinary work, but it's not the connotation carried by the expression.)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jan 12, 2019 at 16:48
  • @LukeSawczak I agree with that and it became evident as I put myself back into a better perspective of the word that that aspect is hardly salient or non existant. There is the Webster dictionary to support this contention : "to do something without making much effort to do it well". I must say I have been influenced by the translations: we get "perfunctory" in the Oxford" dictionary, then out of a Harrap translation dictionary, for "bacler" there is "to do perfunctorily" , and finally for "slapdash" (same meaning as "slip-shod") there is "baclé";(next field)
    – LPH
    Jan 12, 2019 at 18:47
  • it follows that "bacler" and "slip-shod" are justified (at all events according to the dictionaries); this latter dictionary definition might be at fault. I've modified my answer anyway so as to keep to the point of view you draw attention to. If you have another objection do not hesitate to mention it.
    – LPH
    Jan 12, 2019 at 18:51

Faire quelque chose machinalement (Larousse en ligne).

Machinalement : « De façon machinale, par habitude, sans en avoir conscience » (TLFi).

  • 1
    "De façon machinale" reminds me a bit of "comme un/e automate."
    – Papa Poule
    Jan 12, 2019 at 0:15
  • @PapaPoule You have good reflexes there. Your comment reminds me of this. For me "comme un robot" is more typical. I also thought of zombie... Thanks!
    – user3177
    Jan 12, 2019 at 20:35

I found a lot of translations using "pour la forme".

Even though it is (just a bit) familiar, it really means that, you did something, but you do not really believe in it and just did it "by convention" or because you had to / were forced to.

  • Can you provide some examples in context? (+1 in any case:-)!)
    – Dimitris
    Jan 11, 2019 at 22:06
  • J'ai mis mon nom à la fin de mon message pour la forme, bien que je sois déjà dans ses contacts. I added my name at the end of my message to go through the motions, even though I'm already in his contacts. "forme" in "pour la forme" refers directly to the fond/forme thematic Jan 11, 2019 at 22:08

Some words that come to mind are :

  • train-train - Cours ordinaire des choses, de la vie.

  • routine - Acte régulier et machinal, fruit d'une habitude plus que d'une réflexion.

  • nonchalance - Manière d'être ou d'agir caractérisée par l'absence d'énergie, de zèle, de soin, due à l'insouciance, l'indifférence.

  • indolence - Disposition à se donner le moins de peine possible, à agir avec lenteur et mollesse.

Il m'a dit qu'il s'occupait de ma plainte, mais j'ai bien senti que c'était avec beaucoup de nonchalance.

  • Peut-on dire quelque chose comme : "Il a dit qu'il allait travaillé, mais j'ai vu qu'il le ferait sans bien de zèle" ?
    – Dimitris
    Jan 11, 2019 at 22:16
  • 1
    À l'extrême, les deux premiers iraient mais il manque un mot qui montrerait l'aspect négatif ; par exemple « routine » tout seul n'est pas péjoratif. « indolent » ne fait que donner un trait de caractère, pas l'idée d'une approche plus ou moins sous le contrôle de la personne.
    – LPH
    Jan 11, 2019 at 22:27
  • @dimitris Il faut dire « sans trop de zèle ». Avant qu'il s'agisse de zèle il y a des états d'esprit intermédiaires très louables : « Il a dit qu'il allait travailler, mais j'ai vu qu'il le ferait sans trop de bonne volonté. » (Il n'y a mis aucun zèle mais le travail est bien fait.)
    – LPH
    Jan 11, 2019 at 22:33
  • @dimitris Ce pourrait être Il a dit qu'il allait travailler, mais j'ai senti qu'il le ferait sans beaucoup de zèle.
    – jlliagre
    Jan 11, 2019 at 23:02
  • En apprenant l'allemand, je crois commencer à oublier la grammaire standard du français:-)!
    – Dimitris
    Jan 11, 2019 at 23:04

As many have pointed out, 'just/merely/etc. going through the motions' is negative. (So much so that 'going through the motions' without an adverb almost feels incomplete.) 'Par pure inertie' has the proper negative connotation.

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