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Mauvais vs Mal

Confusing French pairs

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Mauvais and mal are often confused, because they both have negative meanings and can be adjectives, adverbs, or nouns. See the summary table at the bottom.


Adjectives

Mauvais is usually an adjective that modifies a noun and means bad, mean, wrong, etc. Mal means bad, ill-at-ease, immoral, etc., and can only be used as an adjective with copular (state-of-being) verbs such as être (to be) and se sentir (to feel).

Il a de mauvais yeux. He has bad eyes (can't see).   C'est mal de dire ça. It's bad (wrong) to say that.
C'est une mauvaise excuse. That's a bad/poor excuse. Il est mal à l'école. He is (feels) uncomfortable at school.
Il est mauvais acteur. He's a bad actor. Je suis mal avec eux. I'm on bad terms with them.
un mauvais numéro wrong number Il va mal ce soir. He is very ill tonight.
une mauvaise personne bad/malicious person
 

Adverbs of manner

Mal is usually an adverb meaning poorly, badly, improperly, etc. It can also be used in front of a past participle in order to give that verb a negative meaning. Mauvais, in the rare instances where it is used as an adverb (see adverbial adjectives), means bad.
 
J'ai mal dormi. I slept poorly.   Cela sent mauvais. That smells bad.
Il parle mal le français. He speaks French poorly. Il fait mauvais. The weather is bad.
La porte ferme mal. The door doesn't close properly.
Ce travail est mal fait. This work is badly done.
Il y a pas mal de gens. There are quite a few people.
 

Nouns

Le mauvais means bad/negative part or bad in the general sense of evil, while le mal (plural maux) refers to a difficulty, evil, or (with the verb avoir) pain.
 
Je n'ai pas mangé le mauvais. I didn't eat the bad part.   J'ai du mal à le voir. I'm having trouble seeing it.
Il ne parle que du mauvais. He only talks about the bad side. J'ai mal à la tête.
J'ai un mal de tête.
I have a headache.
les mauvais the wicked J'ai des maux de tête. I get headaches.
le Mauvais the Devil le mal du pays homesickness
les maux de société societal ills
 

En résumé
Mauvais Mal                                                                            
adjective bad (with noun) bad (with copular verb)
adverb bad badly  
noun bad part evil(s)  


Quiz: Mauvais vs mal, bon vs bien
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