Mauvais or Mal, which is correct ?


Between Mal or Mauvais, which word to use, when they translate to the English word Bad. Clearly, the use of one or the other depends on the context. As a general rule we can say that we use Mauvais when we can replace it with Bon. Alternatively, Mal can be replaced with Bien. Let's see in detail how we use each of them, if they can be synonyms and what differences there are between them.

When used after C'est, mal depicts a moral judgment, while mauvais depicts an utilitarian, aesthetic, intellectual or rarely moral aspect of a person, a thing or an idea.




Mauvais used as an adjective

Most often, Mauvais is an adjective, its feminine is Mauvaise. It qualifies a noun and it has to agree with it in gender and number. In the sentence, an adjective is placed most often just before the noun it qualifies: mauvaise herbe, mauvaise habitude.

As an adjective Mauvais can have the following meanings in English:

MeaningExampleEnglish Translation
badLa sortie a été annulée en raison du mauvais temps.The outing was canceled due to bad weather.
evilIl a quitté sa ville pour échapper aux mauvaises influences.He left his city to escape evil influences.
foulUne très mauvaise odeur peut être le signe d'une infection grave.A very foul smell may mean a serious infection.
improperUne mauvaise utilisation peut entraîner la panne de la machine.Improper use may cause the machine to break down.
incorrectVous avez saisi un mauvais mot de passe.You entered an incorrect password.
lameSa mauvaise blague ne m'a pas fait rire.His lame joke did not make me laugh.
lowLa qualité sonore de cet enregistrement est très mauvaise.The sound quality of this recording is very low.
nastyIl a été puni pour son mauvais comportement.He was punished for his nasty behavior.
poorCe tissu est de mauvaise qualité.This fabric is of poor quality.
wickedSa mauvaise conduite a choqué ses proches.His wicked behaviour shocked his relatives.
wrongIl n'ya pas de mauvaise réponse à cette question.There is no wrong answer to this question.


Mauvais used as an adverb

When the adjective Mauvais immediately follows the verbs such as faire, juger, sentir, trouver, etc., it is used as an adverb and qualifies or modifies the verb. Remember, an adverb is invariable, that's to say it doesn't agree with any other part of the sentence. Mauvais remains then singular masculine.


VerbExampleEnglish Translation
faireQu'il fasse beau ou mauvais, il faut sortir son chien tous les jours.No matter if the weather is good or bad, you have to take your dog out every day.
jugerLes aliments frits sont jugés mauvais pour la santé.Fried food is considered unhealthy.
sentirOuvre la fenêtre ! Ça sent mauvais ici.Open the window! It smells bad here.
trouverLes gens trouvent mauvais qu'on mette le nez dans leurs affaires.People think it's bad that you stick your nose into their business.


Mauvais as well as Mal can follow the verb sentir / se sentir. The verb sentir has then two different meanings.

MeaningExampleEnglish Translation
sentir mauvais = to smell badCe fromage sent mauvais mais il est très bon.This cheese smells bad but it is very good.
se sentir mal = to feel badJe me sens très mal après avoir mangé tout ce chocolat.I feel terrible after eating all that chocolate.


Mauvais used as a noun

Mauvais can also be used as a noun, but rarely. It means then a mean person/animal, an agressive being or a not gifted being.

MeaningExampleEnglish Translation
a mean beingDans un western le bon et le mauvais s'affrontent.In a western the good and the bad clash.
an agressive beingLes videurs ont jeté dehors le client saoul qui faisait le mauvais.The bouncers kicked out the drunk aggressive customer.
a dufferTous les mauvais de la classe étaient assis au dernier rang.All the duffers in the class sat in the last row.


Expressions with Mauvais

ExpressionEnglish Translation
avoir le mauvais oeilhaving an evil eye
avoir mauvaise mineto look badly
avoir mauvaise presseto get bad press
conjurer le mauvais sortward off bad luck
être dans un mauvais jourto be in a bad mood
être de mauvais aloito have a bad reputation, to be of poor quality
être de mauvais augureto be a bad omen
être de mauvais goûtto show little elegance, refinement
être de mauvais poilto be in a bad mood
être de mauvaise foito have a disloyal attitude
être mauvais joueurto be a sore loser
être mauvaise langueto be a slanderer
être sur une mauvaise penteto suffer the consequences of a bad choice
être un mauvais sujetto misbehave
faire contre mauvaise fortune bon cœurdo not be discouraged by adversity
faire quelque chose de mauvaise grâceto do something unwillingly
femme de mauvaise viea prostitute
filer un mauvais cotonto be in a dangerous situation
se faire du mauvais sangto worry
se lever du mauvais piedgetting up on the wrong side of the bed
se tirer d'un mauvais pasto overcome a difficult or dangerous situation
se trouver en mauvaise postureto be in an unfavorable situation
traverser une mauvaise passeto go through a difficult time
une mauvaise herbea weed
utiliser quelque chose à mauvais escientto do something maliciously
voir quelque chose d’un mauvais œilto have an unfavorable opinion about something




Mal used as an adverb

Basically, Mal is an adverb. It qualifies or modifies a verb. As all adverbs, it is invariable, that's to say it doesn't agree with any other part of the sentence.

As an adverb, Mal can have the following meanings in English:

MeaningExampleEnglish Translation
awkwardJe me suis sentie mal en présence de l'ex-femme de mon copain.I felt awkward in presence of my boyfriend's ex wife.
badlyLa prevenue a été mal informée de ses droits. The accused was badly informed about her rights.
incorrectlyLe demandeur d'allocation a mal rempli le formulaire.The claimant has filled out the form incorrectly.
poorlyL'appareil ne fonctionne pas correctement car il est mal conçu.The device does not work properly because it is poorly designed.
shabbilyElle a l'air mal habillée dans son vieux manteau usé.She looks shabbily dressed in her old, worn out coat.
wronglyElle a avoué avoir mal agi.She confessed to having acted wrongly.


Mal used as a noun

Mal can be used as a noun. Then it is masculine. Its plural is Maux.

As a noun, Mal can have the following meanings in English:

MeaningExampleEnglish Translation
acheJ'ai mal à la tête.I have a headache.
ailmentMa voisine sait comment traiter des maux avec des remèdes naturels.My neighbor knows how to treat ailments with natural remedies.
evilParfois il faut combattre le mal par le mal.Sometimes you have to fight evil with evil.
harmLa dernière tempête n'a pas fait trop de mal aux plantations.The last storm did not do too much harm to the plantations.
painJe prends des médicaments pour soulager mon mal de dos.I take medication to relieve my back pain.
troubleJ'ai eu du mal à finir cet exercice.I had trouble finishing this exercise.


Expressions with Mal

ExpressionEnglish Translation
avoir du mal à joindre les deux bouts run out of money
avoir l’esprit mal tourné be willing to interpret everything in a salacious manner
avoir le mal des transports to have motion sickness
avoir le mal du pays be nostalgic for their country of origin
avoir mal au coeurto be nauseous; to be on the verge of vomiting
donner mal au coeurto make somebody feel sick
faire mal au coeurto cause sadness, compassion, resentment, consternation, etc.
bon gré mal gré willy-nilly
être au plus malbe in a very serious state of health
être mal à l'aise feel physical or moral discomfort
être mal barré to be off to a bad start
être mal dans sa peau not feeling comfortable, or not feeling fulfilled
être mal disposé to be in a bad mood
être mal élevébe rude
être mal en point to be very ill
être mal loti to be disadvantaged by fate
être mal placé pour to be in no position to (do something)
être mal vuto be looked upon unfavorably by someone
il ne ferait pas de mal à une mouche he wouldn't harm anybody
le mal-être a general feeling of malaise
mal parler, parler mal to express oneself incorrectly or rudely
mal tourner to change in a bad way
pas mal good enough or a lot, many (informal)
prendre mal quelque choseto react unfavorably to a statement or situation
prendre son mal en patience to bear a difficult situation with courage
s'y prendre mal to do something in a wrong way
tant bien que malsomehow
tomber malto arrive at the wrong time
vouloir du mal à quelqu'unto have bad intentions towards somebody

In conclusion, in general Mauvais is an adjective and Mal is an adverb. Although both can fulfill the same grammatical function sometimes, namely being an adverb or a noun, they are not synonyms and are not interchangeable. Their use is dictated by the context in which they are used.

© – Magdalena Bégou -