Mauvais vs Mal

Mauvais vs mal
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French Foes

The French words mauvais and mal can be tricky for French students because they both belong to three different parts of speech (adjectives, adverbs, nouns) and have similar meanings. If you have a poor understanding of the difference, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to read this lesson.

1) Adjectives

While mauvais and mal can both be adjectives, mauvais is the more common one. It serves to describe a noun as "bad" as in mean, wrong, poor quality, and the like.

Par exemple…

C’est une mauvaise idée.   That’s a bad idea.
Le lait est déjà mauvais.   The milk is already bad.
L’eau est mauvaise, c’est sale.   The water is bad, it’s dirty.
Je n’ai qu’un mauvais vélo.   I only have a poor-quality bike.

In contrast, when mal is an adjective, it’s used with copular (state-of-being) verbs and means "bad" along the lines of sense of immoral, unsatisfying, unhealthy, or unattractive.

Ce serait mal si tu l’oubliais.   It would be bad if you forgot it.
C’est mal de dire ça.   It’s bad to say that.
La nouvelle peinture fait mal.   The new paint looks bad.
On est mal en ce moment.   We’re not doing well at the moment.

2) Adverbs

When it comes to adverbs, mal takes the lead. As an adverb of manner, it means "badly, poorly, not well":

Tout va mal.   Everything is going wrong.
J’ai mal mangé.   I ate poorly.
Il s’entend mal avec les enfants.   He doesn’t get along well with children.
Le travail est mal fait.   The work is poorly done.

It’s also found in the expression of quantity pas mal de:

J’ai pas mal de travail à faire.   I have quite a bit of work to do.
Elle connaît pas mal d’avocats.   She knows quite a few lawyers.

With faire and sentir, mauvais is an adverb meaning "bad, unpleasant":

Il fait mauvais dans les montagnes.   The weather is bad in the mountains.
Ça sent mauvais.   That smells bad.

3) Nouns

As a noun, le mauvais means "the bad part" or "disadvantage(s)":

J’ai jeté le mauvais.   I threw away the bad part.
Cette solution ne présente que du mauvais.   This solution offers only disadvantages.


  • les mauvais = the wicked, bad people
  • le Mauvais = the Devil

Le mal refers to "evil," "pain," or "illness":

le bien et le mal   good and evil
J’ai mal partout.   I hurt (have pain) everywhere.
le mal de mer, de pays   seasickness, homesickness

Plural: les maux

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Mal vs mauvais

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