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Good/Bad vs. Well/Badly

What’s the difference between mau and mal? What about bom and bem? These pairs of Portuguese words are very similar in meaning, but they’re not interchangeable. It comes down to understanding the difference between adjectives and adverbs and how they are used in Portuguese.

Adjectives

Good and bad are adjectives, which modify nouns (people / places / things). In Portuguese, adjectives must agree with the noun in gender and number:
bom paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio good (masc. sing.) bons paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio good (masc. plur.)
boa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio good (fem. sing.) boas paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio good (fem. plur.)
mau paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio bad (masc. sing.) maus paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio bad (masc. plur.)
paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio bad (fem. sing.) más paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio bad (fem. plur.)

Adverbs

Well and badly are adverbs, which modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Adverbs are invariable, so the same words are used regardless of the gender and number of the noun.
bem paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio well
mal paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio badly, poorly

Which One Do I Use?

Bom / Boa vs. Bem

Let’s look at these examples to illustrate the difference between bom/boa (adjectives) and bem (adverb).
Este telemóvel é bom. Funciona muito bem. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio This cell phone is good. It works very well.

Notice how bom (adjective) modifies telemóvel (noun), while bem (adverb) modifies funciona (verb).

Que boa menina, tão bem educada! paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio What a good girl, so well-mannered!

Here, boa (feminine form of bom) is modifying menina (noun), while bem is modifying educada (adjective). The adverb bem could never be paired with the noun.

Correct:
Foi um bom concerto. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio It was a good concert.
Incorrect:
Foi um bem concerto. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio It was a well concert. (incorrect)

Mau / Má vs. Mal

Now let’s review the difference between mau/ (adjectives) and mal (adverb).
O café é mau paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The coffee is bad
Eu conduzo mal paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I drive poorly
Mau modifies the noun café, while mal modifies the verb conduzo.

Summary

If you’re not sure which of the pairs fit in a sentence, look at the surrounding words to see whether the word describes a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb.

  • For words that will modify a noun, use an adjective like bom or mau, adjusted to match the gender and number of the noun.
  • For words that will modify a verb, adjective, or adverb, use an adverb, like bem or mal.

Comments

  • Another useful lesson, thanks, but I noticed that some of the words and phrases are missing their audio files.

    • Hi Jeremy,

      Thanks for the feedback! We normally record these audio clips in batches, so recent articles or ones with examples that have been recently modified may temporarily be without the speaker icons 🙂 Thanks for your support and keep the feedback flowin’! Abraço

      • No problem, Joel. Keeping on top of such an extensive site must be quite a job. Just thought I’d point it out so you can add it to your “to-do” list! LOL
        Abraço

  • Thanks for the comment! There is often a delay in us adding the audio clips when we’ve created/updated an article, since Rui records them all in a batch every week or so. But good news – These clips are now all posted! 🙂

  • Great explanation. Thanks. Will there be a lesson on the difference in pronunciation between mau and mão? I struggle with this.

  • Hi, I have just joined and so far I am finding the site to be excellent.

    On the pronunciation of ‘bem’, which sounds like a nasal version of the the english ‘bye’ I have just returned from Porto where it sounded like a flatter ‘bay’ but again rather nasal.

    Are there regional variations in the pronunciation of the Portuguese ‘-em’?

    Obrigado

    • Hi, Patrick! Yes, there are regional variations for lots of sounds, ‘-em’ included. Your description of the pronunciation in Porto vs. the one demonstrated here (central Portugal/Lisbon) seems accurate 🙂

  • I noticed that in the first example, where ‘bom’ or ‘boa’ comes after the modified noun, whereas in the second example, the word ‘boa’ precedes the noun ‘menina’ and the word ‘bem’ precedes the word ‘educada’. Is this because of the words ‘Que’ at the beginning of the sentence and also the word ‘tão’?

    • Good question! Actually, Portuguese allows for some flexibility with word order. That’s the case with ‘boa menina’. It’s fine to say both “Que boa menina” and “Que menina boa”. But ‘bom’ and ‘boa’ are simple adjectives. With adverbs, things tend to be stricter. As an adverb of manner, when ‘bem’ is modifying a verb (first example), it should come after the verb. On the other hand, when it’s modifying an adjective (second example), it should appear before the adjective. The other words (‘que’ and ‘tão’) don’t really play any part in this.

  • Doing yet another language after all those years and that at my age! Stuff like adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, articles, verbs, conjugations etc. It is all coming back again. I had forgotten my grammatical knowledge after such a long time!.

  • I have one question. (Keep in i mind that English is not my native language)…
    “Adverbs are invariable, so the same words are used regardless of the gender and number of the noun.”
    Should it not be “Adverbs are invariable, so the same words are used regardless of the gender and quantity of the noun.

    It would maybe make it a bit less confusing

    Best regards
    BJörn

    • Hi Björn, Thanks for your feedback! I think we actually used to use the word quantity, but changed it to number because the phrase “they must agree in gender and number” is more common to hear in English. That said, if you think about the meanings of the words, quantity is actually more precise/accurate here. We’ll have to think about this!

    • In terms of hearing the differences, it could be difficult if someone is speaking quickly, but in most cases you would probably be able to tell from the context which is being used. Since mau is an adjective, you would only hear it to describe a noun. Mal is an adverb, so most of the time you would hear it along with a verb. So in the context of a conversation, if someone is describing a thing, it’s probably mau. If someone is talking about how something was done, it’s probably mal.

      As for pronouncing the different sounds, with mau you’re ending with a vowel sound and you round your lips from the “u”. With mal, you’re ending with an “l”, so your tongue will contact just behind your teeth (whereas there’s no contact with mau).

      Does that help?

  • Is there a difference/much difference between greeting someone and saying “tudo bem” vs “tudo bom”? I’ve heard both ways, and I get the feeling that “tudo bem” is the more common way to do it, but is there a difference in the meaning (or is one somewhat incorrect)?

    • In European Portuguese, it’s more common and it sounds better to ask “tudo bem”. In Brazilian Portuguese, “tudo bom” is the most usual expression. As a greeting, there’s no practical difference otherwise 🙂

  • Surely its not the adjective which modified the noun but rather the adjective is modified BY the nouns. Same for the adverbs.

    • What we mean here is that the adjective is telling you something about the noun and in that sense it is modifying it. For example, the adjective “mau” (bad) modifies the noun “café” (coffee) because it tells us something about the quality of the coffee. Same with adverbs: the adverb “mal” (poorly) modifies the verb “conduzir” (drive) because it tells us how the driving was done. Does that make sense?

  • What do you say in case you want to get out of a cab for example. In English I would say here’s fine. Can you translate fine to bem? Since fine is related to a verb (is)?

    • You can say it a number of ways, including with “bem” 🙂 All of these would be fine:
      – Pode parar aqui (you can stop here)
      – Pode deixar-me aqui (you can leave me here)
      – Eu posso ficar aqui (I can stay here)
      – Está bom aqui (It’s fine here)
      – Está bem aqui (It’s fine here)
      – …

  • so….the last example….
    – Está bom aqui (It’s fine here)
    – Está bem aqui (It’s fine here)
    are both correct, because: Está bom aqui related to aqui and Está bem aqui relates to Está ? Just to help me grasp it totally….;) Your system is

    • Olá, Jan. We tend to use these sentences (Está bom/Está bem) interchangeably and we really don’t think much about it! 🙂 Grammatically speaking, I’m not sure that I can give you an in-depth explanation for why both are acceptable, but note that both relate to the verb.

  • Very useful. I started at lesson 1 in order to revise what I had already learnt, so glad I did as I have never really understood the difference between bom and bem until now.

    • Olá, Jessica. You can answer with a simple “Sim” (Yes), “Estou” (I am) or “Está tudo bem” (Everything’s fine). It’s always nice to add a “obrigada” (thank you) and even ask them back, if you’d like: “E tu?” (and you? – informal) / “E você?/E o senhor?/E a senhora? E o/a [person’s name]?/” (and you? – formal)

  • A few years ago, I tried to do skype with a tutor in Portugal and she could never explain this sort of grammar. We would do exercises and I literally had to follow my gut or try to think of how my parents would say it. It was frustrating. Thank you so much for these explanations!

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