In most situations the difference between bon and bien is fairly easy to understand. There are unfortunately a few pesky things that confuse beginner learners to the point where they just want to give up. In this article we’re going to go over all of the key differences between bon and bien including the difficulties that so many learners face.
Probably the most important thing that you can remember is that bon is in most situations an adjective (meaning that it modifies a person, place or thing) and bien is in most situations an adverb (meaning that it modifies a verb). I say that these are true in most situations because of course there are a couple of exceptions and it’s these exceptions that make things so messy.
Let’s start off by looking at bon and every situation that you can use it in.
Using bon to to say good
As you may or may not know, the most common translation for the French word bon is “good”. These first few examples probably show this the most and it’s pretty easy to learn if you already know how to use “good” in English.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples in French where bon could be translated as “good”.
C’est un bon livre, je suis content de l’avoir lu – This is a good book, I’m happy to have read it
Cette pizza est bonne, tu dois me donner la recette – This pizza is good, you must give me the recipe
For the most part the above examples aren’t going to give too many people too much difficulty. However, when using bon in this context there are a couple of other things we should go over.
If you’re using bon to talk about a person things get just a little bit tricky, but still nothing that you shouldn’t be able to handle.
Look at the below sentence to see a couple of ways that we can translate the sentence “he’s a good student” into French.
Il est bon étudiant – He’s a good student
C’est un bon étudiant – He’s a good student
It’s very important to take note that when you use il est / elle est that you don’t use un / une whereas when you use c’est you do.
Using bon to mean correct or right
Bon can also be used when you want to say that something is “right” or “correct”.
Est-ce que cette phrase est bonne ? – Is this sentence correct?
Est-ce que c’est le bon film ? – Is this the right film?
If you are in a situation where whatever you’re talking about is already known then you don’t need to say it. For example if your friend asks you to look for a book for them and you think you may have found the right one you can say C’est le bon ? which is like saying “Is this the right one?”
Using bon to say that something is enough or alright
We’re going to switch up the definition of bon just a little bit with this one. Don’t worry, it’s still not anything you can’t handle. Bon can often take on a meaning similar to “it’s fine” or “it’s enough” or even “it’s okay” in English.
Tu veux que je te prête ma voiture ? – You want me to lend you my car?
Non, c’est bon – No, it’s alright
Est-ce que tu as besoin d’aide ? – Do you need some help?
Non, c’est bon – No, it’s alright
Using bon to say coupon or voucher
Un bon is simply a coupon or voucher. In many instances just saying un bon is good enough, but as you’ll see in the below sentences some people like to specify which type of coupon or voucher is being talked about.
Je dispose d’un bon d’achat mais je ne sais pas comment le valider – I have a coupon but I don’t know how to use (validate) it
Mon ami sait où trouver les meilleurs bon de réduction – My friend knows where to find the best coupons
Hopefully you now have a better idea of how exactly to use bon and in which situations to use it. Let’s now switch gears and go over when and where to use bien in French.
Using bien to mean well
For the most part bien is just as easy to learn as bon, but of course there are a couple of difficulties that we’ll have to go over.
Probably the most common use for bien is as an adverb that typically means that someone does a given action well.
Il parle bien français – He speaks French well
Je vais très bien – I’m doing very well*
*One thing that is very important to take note of is that when someone asks you how you are you must use bien. You absolutely cannot use bon like we often do in English. You cannot say Je vais bon to say “I’m doing (going) good”.
Using bien to add emphasis
You can use bien in front of certain adjective to emphasize them. The best translation would be either “very” or “really”.
Il est bien difficile d’apprendre le Russe – It is really difficult to learn Russian
Cet acteur est bien connu – This actor is really well-known
Using bien as a noun
Just like with bon, bien can sometimes be used as a noun.
Le bien – Good (as opposed to evil)
Le bien-être – Well-being
Les biens – The goods
Difficulties between bon and bien
Probably the biggest difficulty between bon and bien is that bien can sometimes be used as an adjective when you are using state-of-being verbs like être, croire, penser and sembler. If you don’t know what a state-of-being verb is just look at the examples directly below.
Je suis bien avec toi – I am at ease (well) with you
Ce n’est pas bien de faire ça – It’s not good to do that
Il est bien comme prof de français – He is a good French teacher
Je la trouve bien – I think it is nice
Just like how bien is sometimes used as an adjective bon is sometimes used as an adverb. This fortunately isn’t very common, however it’s nevertheless important to know. Let’s look at a few examples.
Ça sent bon – That smells good
Il fait bon travailler – It’s good to work
My best recommendation to learn these difficulties is simply to memorize them. Knowing the rules can certainly be helpful but it’s ultimately not what’s going to get you to the point where you understand it. In the case of the phrase ça sent bon the reason why you use bon instead of bien is because you are talking about ça (that) rather than modifying the verb sentir. You aren’t saying that ça (that) is good at smelling, but rather describing ça (that).
This is all to say that this phrase isn’t really an exception to the rule, but it can first seem like it at first glance. Nevertheless it’s an example of when to use bon after a verb instead of bien.
If you didn’t know already it’s rather important to note that adjectives and adverbs in French are sometimes placed in different places than their English counterparts.
In English the adjective typically comes before the noun such as in the sentence “He has a red car”. In French however it typically comes after it so you would say Il a une voiture rouge (literally he has a car red). The word bon however is one that usually comes before the adjective which is why we used the sentence C’est un bon étudiant (among others) above.
Adverbs are a little more difficult because they come both before and after the verb both in English and in French. We won’t go into too much detail in this article, but there is something that’s worth going over. When you use bien in the present tense you put it after the verb such as in the sentence Il joue bien du piano (He plays piano well). However if you put it in the passé composé tense then you place it before the main verb which in this instance is jouer. Doing this gives us the sentence Il a bien joué du piano (He played piano well).
More practice with Bon and bien
Sometimes there are just things in a language that don’t appear to fit within any rule or category that you learn. This certainly applies to the differences between bon and bien and of course my recommendations are to simply take them as they are and memorize them.
Tiens bon ! – Hang in there! / Hold on!
Bon voyage ! – Have a nice trip!
Bon appétit – Enjoy your meal
Très bien – Very good / Very well
Bonne chance – Good luck
Bonne idée – Good idea
Bien fait (pour ta gueule) – Well deserved (Implies a negative connotation like in the phrase serves you right. You can add pour ta gueule to it, but just bien fait works as well)
Summing up the differences between bon and bien
Before we finish things off let’s sum up what we’ve already gone over. Bon is typically an adjective and is used to modify a noun (person, place or thing) whereas bien is typically an adverb which of course modifies verbs. There are of course exceptions to this probably the biggest of which being that bien can sometimes be used as an adjective when you are using state-of-being verbs like être, croire, penser and sembler. Bon can also be used as an adverb (such as in the sentence il fait bon travailler – it’s good to work) however it’s definitely much less common.
When we aren’t looking at exceptions to the rules bon can be used to say that something is good (such as in the sentence C’est un bon livre – It’s a good book), correct (such as in the sentence est-ce cette phrase est bonne ?), enough (such as in the sentence non c’est bon – No it’s alright) and coupon or voucher (such as in the sentence (j’ai donné le bon d’achat au vendeur – I gave the coupon to the seller).
Bien on the other hand means well (such as in the sentence il parle bien français – he speaks French well), adds emphasis (such as in the sentence il est bien difficile d’apprendre le russe – it’s very difficult to learn Russian), and can be used as a noun (such as in the words le bien – good or le bien-être – well-being).
With just a little bit of practice you should be able to get down the difference between bon and bien in no time. If you would like to learn more vocabulary head on over to the French vocabulary page.