How to use mauvais and mal ?

Knowing when to use bon and bien can be tricky. Indeed, they are applied into different contexts in everyday French conversations. Well, it seems mauvais and mal are also a source of mistakes. But don’t worry. We’ll help you now to decide when to use which ! With our simple explanations, tips, and examples, you can sink your teeth into a new language with confidence and learn to better speak French.

Table of content :

  1. The main difference between mauvais and mal
  2. When can we use mauvais ?
  3. The different ways to apply mal in conversations
mal ou mauvais

The main difference between mauvais and mal

Firstly, you need to understand the main grammatical difference between mauvais and mal. Let’s look at examples to comprehend the key points between adjectives and adverbs.

  • Mauvais is usually an adjective. Therefore, it generally modifies a noun and needs to be conjugated. It means bad, mean or wrong. However, we have a few exceptions.

ex : C’est un mauvais gâteau = this is a bad cake
C’est une mauvaise tarte = this is a bad tart
Ce sont de mauvaises pâtisseries = these are a bad pastries

  • Mal is mostly known as an adverb. As a result, it will stay the same and complete a verb. We can translate it as badly, poorly, incorrectly or immoral. But, as you may guess, there are also some cases when mal could be an adjective and a noun !

ex : Les acteurs de ce film joue mal = Actors of this movie play poorly
Elle s’habille mal = She doesn’t dress well. She’s wearing the wrong clothes.

If you are still unsure about the differences between adjectives and adverbs, feel free to check the Thesaurus website.

mauvais ou mal

When can we use mauvais ?

Now, as we’ve seen above mauvais is mostly an adjective. However, sometimes it can be an adverb too. Let see together the various meaning it can implies with examples and common situations :

  • Meaning bad (for the food, the time and the condition)

ex : Elle est arrivée au mauvais moment = She arrived at a bad time
C’est une mauvaise viande = This is a bad meat
Son ordinateur est en mauvais état = His/her computer is in a bad condition

  • Connected to something wrong (a wrong number, size,..)

ex : Désolé, vous avait fait le mauvais numéro = Sorry, you’ve dialled the wrong number
Tu as commandé des chaussures à la mauvaise taille = You’ve ordered shoes at the wrong size.

  • Expressing a poor quality (used with art and health)

ex = C’est une mauvaise pièce de théâtre = This is a poor play
Tu es en mauvaise santé = Your health is poor

  • Someone or something being nasty or rough

ex : La mer est mauvaise ce matin = The sea is rough this morning

Mauvais is sometimes an adverb, mainly with faire (to do or make) and sentir (to smell). In these cases, it modifies the verbs.

ex : Il fait mauvais aujourd’hui = The weather is bad today
Ça sent vraiment mauvais ici = It really smells bad here

use mauvais

The different ways to apply mal in conversations

When it comes to mal, it is most commonly an adverb. We translate it as badly, unwell, poorly as follows :

  • Expressing a feeling of unwellness

ex : Paul va mal = Paul is unwell

  • Translated a badly, improperly

ex : Ton travail est vraiment mal fait = Your work is badly done
Cette porte ferme mal = This door doesn’t close properly

  • Connected to poorly 

ex : Hier j’ai mal mangé = Yesterday I ate poorly
Tu as mal dormi ? = You slept poorly ? 

Furthermore, mal can be an adjective, when in connection with state of being verbs. Then, it means more something immoral or disconcerting

ex : C’est mal de mentir = It’s immoral to tell lies
Je suis mal pour lui  = I feel uncomfortable for him

Finally, mal could be a noun. We use it there to describe a pain or the evil.

ex : Elle a le mal de mer = She has seasickness
Juger le bien et le mal  = Judging the good and the evil

use mal in french

As a conclusion, mauvais and mal are often confused. Indeed, they both have negative meanings and can be adjectives, adverbs, or nouns. However, with a bit of practice you could soon master this topic in conversations.

If you’d like to grasp grammar, vocabulary and nuances of French in a natural manner, feel free to reach out. It’s never too late to start to learn French. Good luck and à bientôt !