Does French seriously need two words for “good?”
Why should we have to worry about bon vs. bien if they mean practically the same thing?
Before you get all grumpy about it, you should know that English isn’t much different.
It’s just that if you’re a native speaker, you can generally figure out whether to use “good” or “well” depending on the context.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have the same natural grammar sense in French?
After this article, you will.
We’ll explain the big difference between bon and bien—you’ll see that they’re actually quite different from each other.
Then we’ll walk through specific cases where you always use one or the other, to further cut down on any guesswork.
Where to Practice Bon vs. Bien Online
The best way to learn the rules below is to apply them. Here are the best online tools to practice using bon and bien in different contexts:
- Test your knowledge with the fill-in-the-blank quiz offered by SoftSchools, a site that provides free educational resources for a variety of subjects.
- Or, you could try a short multiple choice quiz on Study.com, a site with various tests and study outlines.
- To practice listening to bon and bien the way French speakers naturally use them, watch authentic French videos on FluentU.
Every FluentU video comes with interactive subtitles. Click any word in the subtitles for an instant definition, grammar video and example sentences. You’ll also see other videos that have the word so you can understand how it’s used in any context. You can easily search for videos with specific words like bon or bien, or just browse the videos by genre or level to boost your overall vocabulary.
Plus, FluentU will actually suggest new videos for you based on what you’ve already learned.
- Try these bon vs. bien flashcards on Quizlet, an educational site that provides free study sets, games and tests. Their set of flashcards has a fill-in-the-blank sentence on one side and the correct answer (bien or bon) on the other.
- Finally, Tex’s French Grammar, a French learning site run by the University of Texas, has some exercises to practice not only bon and bien but also mieux (better) and meilleur (better).
Well or Good? The Grammar Geek’s Guide to Bon vs. Bien
The Grammatical Difference Between Bon and Bien
The basics of bon and bien are pretty easy for English speakers, considering we have a very similar pair of words: “good” and “well.”
Typically, bon and “good” are used as adjectives:
Le repas est bon. (The meal is good.)
On the other hand, bien and “well” are usually used as adverbs:
Il joue bien au foot. (He plays soccer well.)
Note that the placement of adjectives and adverbs is somewhat different in French than it is in English. In English, most adjectives are placed before the noun they modify, but in French, most adjectives are placed after the noun. For example, you would say la chemise blanche (the white shirt). As for adverbs, their placement often changes in both English and French depending on what type of adverb it is (here’s a full rundown on using French adverbs).
Therefore, considering when you’d use “good” vs. “well” is an easy way to determine when to use bon vs. bien, but it’s not a good way to decide where in the sentence those words should go.
Another important distinction from English is that French adjectives must agree in gender and number with the noun they’re modifying. So, possible variations of bon include: bonne (feminine), bons (masculine plural) and bonnes (feminine plural).
Take a look at the following examples that include the use of bon with different gendered and numbered nouns and which show you the basic difference between bon and bien.
La nourriture est bonne. (The food is good.)
C’est une bonne journée. (It is a good day.)
Il se bat bien. (He fights well.)
Ce film est bon. (This movie is good).
Ces chansons sont bonnes. (These songs are good.)
Vos desserts sont bons. (Your desserts are good.)
Elle chante bien. (She sings well.)
Beyond the Basics: Specific Uses of Bon vs. Bien in French
As with just about any French grammar point, once you learn the general rule, you must follow up with all of the exceptions and specific side rules.
To make it easier, I’ve divided each of the following sections into specific instances where you’d use bon, followed by one where you’d use bien. These usage rules will come in very handy in those tricky situations when you’re not quite sure whether to use bon or bien.
When to Use Bon in French
Talking about the senses:
One very common usage of bon is to compliment someone’s cooking—in other words, describing a food’s good taste. Just as bon is used to describe taste, it’s used to describe other senses as well.
Le gâteau a un bon goût. (The cake tastes good. — Literally, “The cake has a good taste.”)
Le café sent bon. (The coffee smells good.)
Cette bougie sent bon. (This candle smells good.)
In this case, bon doesn’t become feminine because it’s actually describing the smell rather than the candle. It’s an adverbial adjective in this case, which I’ll talk more about later.
Les fleurs sentent bon. (These flowers smell good.)
Again, bon is used as an adverbial adjective so it doesn’t become feminine or plural.
When something is done/ready:
Here’s a rather easy rule to grasp. You can simply use bon to indicate that something is finished or ready. Essentially, you just use “C’est bon.” (“It’s done/ready/finished.”)
Here are some examples of situations where saying “C’est bon” would be appropriate:
- You’ve just finished cooking dinner.
- You’ve gathered your belongings, locked the door and are ready to go to school.
- You’ve finished a test and are ready to give it to the teacher.
To indicate “enough:”
Here’s another easy-to-remember situation. This phrase is the same as before: C’est bon. (That’s enough.)
It’s polite enough to use in most situations, and you’re sure to hear it often if you’re in France. Here are some examples where you can use C’est bon in place of “enough:”
- Someone is pouring you a drink and you’d like to indicate it’s enough.
- Someone offers you another helping of food and you want to show that you’re full.
- You and a friend are exercising and you’d like to say that you’ve had enough of a workout session.
As an adverbial adjective:
Though it’s rare, sometimes bon is used as an adverbial adjective, which means that it provides more information on a verb, another adjective or an adverb.
A common example of this is when talking about smell, as we saw when using bon to talk about the senses. As was noted in that section, bon as an adverbial adjective doesn’t become feminine or plural because of the simple reason that it’s not modifying a noun.
You can also use bon with the construction il fait + bon + verb to mean that it’s generally good to do something.
Il fait bon se promener. (It is good to go walking.)
Il fait bon travailler. (It is good to work.)
Additionally, bon can be used to modify certain special verbs like sembler (to seem) and tenir (to hold). Though these verbs don’t fall into a general category, you’ll begin to recognize them with more exposure to French. Essentially, when bon is used with these verbs, the meaning is a bit more broad than “good.”
Here are a couple of examples to clarify:
Tiens bon! (Hold on!/Hang in there!)
Ça semble bon. (It seems good/okay.)
Exclamations and wishes:
French speakers often use bon in short, exclamatory phrases that express good wishes to someone. Examples include:
Bonne chance! (Good luck!)
Bon voyage! (Have a good trip! — Literally, “Good trip!”)
Bonne idée! (Good idea!)
Bon appétit! (Dig in!)
You probably recognize the last phrase, which is said before every meal (it’s considered rude to start eating before saying it), and really, there’s no good English translation. It literally means “Good appetite!”
When something is correct:
You’ll also need to use bon to express when something is correct. Here are a few examples:
Ce n’est pas la bonne réponse. (It’s not the correct answer.)
Oui, ces papiers. Ces sont les bons devoirs pour ce soir. (Yes, these papers. These are the correct homework sheets for this evening.)
When something is enjoyable or pleasant:
You use bon to talk about something—a period of time or an event, for example—that was enjoyable or pleasant.
J’ai passé de bonnes vacances. (I had a pleasant vacation.)
C’était un bon Noël. (It was a good Christmas.)
When talking about competency, kindness or quality:
As in the examples below, you can use this to discuss a person’s character or skills, or the quality of something.
Elle est une bonne actrice. (She’s a good actress.)
Elle est vraiment bonne. (She is truly good. — In this case, the sentence is describing someone’s overall kindness or character as good.)
C’est le bon vin. (It’s the high quality/good wine).
As a noun:
Occasionally, you’ll see bon used as a noun, when it means voucher or coupon.
Il y a un bon pour obtenir deux pantalons pour la prix d’un. (There’s a coupon for getting two pants for the price of one.)
When to Use Bien in French
Luckily, the use of bien isn’t quite as extensive as its counterpart. Below are six specific cases where you use bien.
With state-of-being verbs:
State-of-being verbs include verbs like être (to be), penser (to think), croire (to believe) and sembler (to seem). They describe states of mind or being and are accompanied by bien rather than bon. For example:
Il est bien comme prof. (He is a good professor.)
This literally means that he’s good as a professor and is grammatically different than Il est un bon prof (He is a good professor), which isn’t describing a general state of being but modifying the noun prof.
Here’s another example with the verb penser:
Je pense bien à toi. (I think well of you.)
When giving an opinion:
Think of this rule as expressing your likes/dislikes or satisfaction/dissatisfaction.
C’était bien, le film! (The movie was good!)
This is different than calling the movie good (in which case you use bon). Instead, you’re using this expression to specifically say that you liked it. The sentence literally means “It was good, the film!”
When talking about “wellness:”
Talking about how you feel—specifically, whether or not you feel well—is another situation where you’ll need to use bien.
Je me sens bien. (I feel well.)
Tu te sens bien aujourd’hui? (Do you feel well today?)
There’s also an informal twist on this usage you can use with friends to talk about someone who’s behaving strangely:
Elle n’est pas bien!? (Is she crazy? — Literally, “Is she not well?”)
To say “really” or “very:”
Using bien to express “really” or “very” is a common habit among native French speakers, and you’ll definitely need to work it into your conversation if you want to sound natural. Here are some examples:
Elle est bien méchante. (She is really mean.)
Je suis bien fatigué. (I am very tired.)
Il fait bien chaud. (It’s really hot.)
As a noun:
Bien can sometimes be used as a noun to mean “the good” or “goods/belongings,” as in the following sentences:
Savez-vous le bien du mal? (Do you know good from bad? — Think of it as similar to the English saying “Do you know right from wrong?”)
Il a fait don de ses biens à une oeuvre de bienfaisance. (He donated his belongings to a charity.)
As “good” in the expression Très bien:
Let’s end with an easy one that you’ve probably heard before!
Très bien! (Very good!)
Whew! Those were a lot of grammar rules, but you’ve earned a break now that you know when to use bon vs. bien like a native speaker would!
Camille Turner is an experienced freelance writer and ESL teacher.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.