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Difference Between Bon & Bien

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson discusses the French adjective 'bon' and the adverb 'bien' and some examples of how they are commonly used. It will discuss common idioms as well as the uses of 'bon' and 'bien' in everyday conversation.

Bon and Bien

The difference between bon and bien is the same as the difference between the English 'good' and 'well' used to translate them. That's literally all there is to it. Bon (bohn), like 'good,' is an adjective, used to qualify nouns and describe things or people. Bien (bee-yehn), like 'well,' is an adverb used to modify verbs and describe actions or states of being. Now that we've explained what makes bon and bien different from each other, let's look at some examples of how they're used idiomatically.

Bon

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The adjective bon gained international currency as part of a hit song title in the 1960s. 'C'est si bon' became symbolic of a distinctively French way of taking pleasure in life. Bon also turns up in a number of French idioms. It's frequently used in exclamations and good wishes. Here are some of the most common examples:

  • Bon appétit! (boh nah-paytee) / Good appetite! (said before eating)
  • Bonne chance! (bonn shahns) / Good luck!
  • Bonne idée! (bonn ee-day) / Good idea!
  • Bon débarras! (bohn day-bar-rah) / Good riddance!
  • Bon voyage! (bohn vwa-yahzh) / Good travels!

Notice that in each of these expressions, the gender of the adjective matches the gender of the noun, as always in French. So, in wishing someone a nice day, you say Bonne journée!, since la journée is a feminine noun. In saying good evening, since le soir is masculine, you say Bon soir.

Bon can also be used in more elaborate idioms, such as bon chic, bon genre. This phrase roughly translates to 'good style, good attitude.' It has been expanded from referring to a group of Parisians to a more general description of looking well turned-out without looking like you tried too hard. Less literally, you can speak of a hearty eater as being une bonne fourchette, or a good fork. Someone who has a cushy job, meanwhile, can be referred to as having un bon fromage, or a good cheese.

Bien

Bien turns up in fewer idioms than bon, but very often in small talk. It's so commonly used that the verbs it modifies are often left out. For instance, if someone asks Comment ça va? ('How's it going?'), a common response is simply Bien! ('Well!') rather than the more formal Ça va bien ('It's going well.') The same goes for 'How are you?' (Comment allez-vous, or, less formally, Comment vas-tu?) and the response, which can be Bien instead of Je vais bien.

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