Which is it, "bon", or "bien"?
How do I know when to use "c’est bon", and when to use "c’est bien"?
If you ask a native French speaker when to use bon and when to use bien, you’re likely to get a blank stare. They know intuitively, of course, when to use bon and when to use bien, but they likely can’t explain a grammatical rule. So you’re not alone. That’s because bon and bien can both be adjectives, as well as adverbs, and nouns―three different parts of speech! It’s quite tricky and can be more than a little confusing because much of the use of these similar words is essentially idiomatic.
So this question is actually one of the more complicated aspects of learning French. We won’t cover this subject in complete detail today, but fortunately there are a few guidelines you can remember fairly easily that will help you to choose the right word most of the time.
When to use bon as an adjective―the French equivalent of good, nice, pleasant, or valid.
Most of the time in English we use the word “good” in front of a noun where it serves as an adjective. It’s very much the same in French where you use the adjective “bon”, or ”bonne”, if the noun is feminine, because there must be agreement.
Tu a fait un bon travail. Ce travail est bon. C’est bon.
You did a good job. That job is good. It’s good.
C’est une bonne idée. Cette idée est bonne. Elle est bonne.
That’s a good idea. That idea is good. It’s good.
C’est vraiment une bonne voiture. Cette voiture est bonne. Elle est bonne.
That’s a really nice car. That car is nice. It’s nice.
C’est un bon billet. Ce billet est toujours bon. Il est bon.
That’s a good (valid) ticket. This ticket is still good. It’s good.
Je voudrais un bon steak ! Ce steak est bon. Il est bon. C’est bon.
I’d like a good steak! This steak is good. It’s good.
Note that we never say, “c’est bonne.” That’s because c’est is a contraction for “ce est”, which is never used―only c’est, and ce is masculine, referring to a masculine subject.
When to use bien as an adverb―the French equivalent of “well” or “really” in English.
In English we use the word “well” in conjunction with a verb to modify the action of that verb. For example, “He plays tennis well.” How does he play tennis? He plays “well.” Bien as an adverb is used in much the same manner.
Comment ça va ? Ça vas bien !
How’s it going? It’s going well!
Paris est bien animé !
Paris is really lively!
Jean ne joue pas très bien du violon.
John doesn’t play the violin very well.
Cette chaise est bien faite.
This chair is well made.
Tu peux bien voir que cette situation est assez dangereuse.
You can really see that this situation is rather dangerous.
Elle joue très bien au tennis.
She plays tennis very well.
Notice in the last example that we use bien as an adverb to modify the verb jouer. “She plays well.” But if we want to say, “she’s a good player”, then we need the adjective bon to modify the noun “player” and so we would say, elle est une bonne joueuse.
... we use bien as an adverb to modify the verb... "elle joue très bien au tennis." She plays tennis very well.
But also use bien rather than bon, when expressing an opinion.
Besides being an adverb, bien is also used to express the sentiment of “good” 90% of the time when you are expressing an opinion in French (with the exception of food―la nourriture―in which case you always use bon or bonne.)
Elle joue très bien au tennis. C’est bien (an opinion).
She is playing tennis very well. That’s good.
Tu aimes le concert ? Oui, c’est bien !
Do you like the concert? Yes, it’s good!
Comment s’est passé ton voyage en Australie ? C’était très bien !
How was your trip to Australia? It was really good!
Tu veux aller aux cinéma ? Oui, ce serait bien !
You want to go to the movies? Yes, that would be good!
Ma fille veut être vétérinaire. Vraiment ? C’est bien !
My daughter wants to be a veterinarian. Really? That’s good!
Happily, as you continue to study French, in a short while you will discover that you will start using the right word because it sounds right, and you won’t have to think about grammar! That’s the way young French kids learn it!
A common mistake with bien...
Here’s a common mistake which you no doubt will never again make in the future. When a French speaker asks “How are you?”, they say Comment tu vas ? Many beginners will reply “I am good”―“Je suis bien”. That would be incorrect. The French always use the verb aller to talk about how they’re doing. You must reply “I’m going well”―Je vais bien―or “It’s going well”―Ca va bien. And, of course, you can add the famous Merci ! :)
One more use of “C’est bon.”
Here’s an interesting use of c’est bon. In English, when a waiter offers us a refill of our coffee and we really don’t want anymore, we sometimes waive our hand and say, “that’s good, thanks” to indicate that we’ve had enough. It’s exactly the same in French. Simply say, “c’est bon, merci” when you’ve had enough. It’s the short equivalent of saying, ça suffit comme ça.
Similarly you can use c’est bon to cut off a conversation or argument when you’re fed up and have had enough, as in the last photo above. But then you also have to use your best angry eyes―it usually helps! :) Yes, it does create "la ride du lion" (the lion wrinkle) in between your eyes, but perhaps you have noticed that we French people don’t hesitate to use our facial expressions all the time!
Thanks to Annick Roussin for her contribution to this post.
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