Mauvais vs. Mal

Understand these confusing french pairs

man looking annoyed
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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.


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 numérowrong number Il va mal ce soir.He is very ill tonight.
une mauvaise personnebad/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. 



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 mauvaisthe wicked J'ai des maux de tête.I get headaches.
le Mauvaisthe Devil le mal du payshomesickness
   les maux de sociétésocietal ills



adjectivebad (with noun)bad (with copular verb)
nounbad partevil(s)