Using malo and mal interchangeably is one of the most common mistakes that people learning Spanish make. Although they may have similar translations, in Spanish, ‘mal’ and ‘malo’ work with different grammatical elements. Since these words are used frequently in conversations, many Spanish learners wonder what’s the difference between ‘mal’ and ‘malo’.
‘Malo’ is an adjective. It describes nouns. Depending on the context, it could mean ‘bad’, ‘wicked’, ‘evil’ or ‘mean’. As an adverb, ‘mal’ qualifies how an action is performed. It means ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ or ‘badly’. As an adjective, ‘mal’ means ‘bad’ and it goes in front of singular masculine nouns.
Understanding the difference between these words and applying them correctly can be a little bit challenging for new and experienced Spanish speakers. For that reason, in the following sections, you’ll find more information about the differences between ‘mal’ and ‘malo’.
Additionally, we included some examples, phrase structures and contexts where you can use these words. By the end of it, you’ll have a stronger understanding of the differences between ‘mal’ and ‘malo’ as well as when and how to use them properly.
What’s the Difference Between ‘Mal’ and ‘Malo’ in Spanish?
In Spanish, ‘mal’ and ‘malo’ are used in similar contexts. They both can be used to describe something or a characteristic. Although their function is the same, ‘mal’ and ‘malo’ work with different elements. Here is a table with the key differences between these words.
|Classification||Adjective||Adjective – when used in front of a noun|
Adverb – when used with a verb
|Rules||1. Only used after nouns. |
2. It has a plural and feminine form.
|1. It goes after a verb. |
2. As an adjective, it goes before singular masculine nouns.
|Uses||To describe people and objects.||1. To describe how an action is done.|
2. To describe people and objects.
|– Bad / terrible|
– Wrong / Incorrect
Carlos canta muy mal
Carlos sings very badly
Mi vecino es un hombre muy malo
My neighbor is a very bad man
Juan es un mal hombre, no hables con él
Juan is a bad man, don’t talk to him
¡No seas malo, Julieta solo quiere ayudarte!
Don’t be mean! Julieta just wants to help you!
Now that you have a better understanding of ‘mal’ and ‘malo’ let’s see the contexts as well as the rules that you will need to use these words.
How & When to Use ‘Mal’ in Spanish
Depending on the context, in Spanish, ‘mal’ could either be used as an adjective or as an adverb. Its function is to describe an action or a noun (object or person). ‘Mal’ could be translated as:
- Bad / terrible
Here are some phrase structures as well as the contexts where you can use ‘mal’.
Describing How an Action is Being Done
One of the most useful ways to use ‘mal’ in Spanish is to describe how an action is being performed. In other words, we can use ‘mal’ to:
- Give our negative opinion about how people do certain activities.
- Express that an activity is not being performed correctly.
- Describe an activity or action.
Here is how we use it:
[Verb conjugated] + mal
Carlos canta mal
Carlos sings badly
¡No! Lo estás haciendo mal
No! You’re doing it wrong
Creo que estás mal, eso no se dice así en español
I think you’re wrong, you don’t say that in Spanish
¿Probaste la leche antes de tomartela? Creo que huele mal
Did you test the milk before drinking it? I think it smells bad
Klauss habla muy mal francés, pero es muy bueno en español
Klauss speaks french very badly, but he’s very good in Spanish
Also, when working with exclamatory sentences, ‘mal’ can go before the verb.
¡Qué mal que no viniste el sábado!
It’s too bad that you didn’t come on Saturday!
¡Qué mal te ves! ¿Te sientes bien?
You look terrible! Are you feeling well?
Describing Things, Places and People (Nouns)
Using ‘mal’ to describe nouns (which means it’s used here as an adjective) can be very confusing for Spanish learners. In this situation, ‘mal’ is a short version of ‘malo’. ‘Mal’ only works before singular masculine nouns and it means ‘bad’. Here is the phrase structure that you need to use for this case:
[Verb conjugated] + (un) + mal + [noun]
Carlos es un mal cantante
Carlos is a bad singer
Pablo tiene mal carácter
Pablo has a bad character
Ese restaurante tiene un muy mal servicio
That restaurant has pretty bad service
Creo que Lucas es un mal amigo para mi hermano
I think Lucas is a bad friend for my brother
Julián es un mal hombre, no deberías hablar con él
Julián is a bad man, you shouldn’t talk to him
Take Note: When describing objects and people, most of the time ‘mal’ works with the verb ‘ser’ since it expresses characteristics and qualities. It can also work with verbs that express possession such as ‘tener’. Although this is not a rule of thumb, it can give you some guidance.
Related Resource: How to Use Ser in Spanish
How & When to Use ‘Malo’ in Spanish
As a Spanish adjective, ‘malo’ describes people, things, and objects (nouns). Depending on the context, ‘malo’ could be used to:
- Describe negatively a person or object’s behaviors, personality or qualities.
- Describe a person’s ability/inability to do something.
- Express that an object or activity is harmful or bad.
Depending on the context, ‘malo’ could be translated as ‘bad’, ‘wicked’, ‘mean’, ‘harmful’ or ‘evil’. When working with the verb ‘estar’, ‘malo’ could also mean ‘sick’ or ‘ill’. Here are some examples as well as some phrase structures that you can use:
Noun + [ser conjugated] + (muy) + malo
Comer tanta azúcar es malo
Eating so much sugar is bad
El cigarro es muy malo para la salud
Smokes are bad for your health
Julián es muy malo, no deberías hablar con él
Julian is evil, you shouldn’t talk to him
Fabián es muy malo: no quiso ayudarme a estudiar
Fabián is very mean: he didn’t want to help me study
Take Note: As an adjective, ‘malo’ needs to match the gender and plurality of the noun that it is describing. Therefore, ‘malo’ has a plural and feminine forms: malos, mala, malas.
If instead of talking about personality and qualities, you want to describe someone’s abilities (or inability) to perform a task or action, you’ll need to use the following phrase structure:
Noun + [ser conjugated] + (muy) + malo + para + [infinitive verb]
Carlos es malo para hablar con la gente
Carlos is very bad at talking to people
Marisol y Rebeca son muy malas para escuchar
Marisol and Rebeca are very bad at listening
Take Note: Most of the time, ‘malo’ works with ‘ser’ since it’s talking about qualities. However, in some contexts, it can work with ‘estar’, when talking about a single situation or instance.
Patricio está malo
Patricio is sick
Los tacos están malos
The tacos are bad
Related Resource: How to Use ‘Estar’ in Spanish
Both ‘mal’ and ‘malo’ can be quite confusing for new and experienced Spanish learners since both words are negative descriptors.
In this article, we discussed that ‘mal’ could be either an adverb or an adjective while ‘malo’ is always an adjective. As a result, these words are not always synonyms. Additionally, they follow their own sets of grammatical rules.
Here are some key points to keep in mind:
- It can be either an adjective or an adverb.
- As an adverb, it describes how an action is performed. Most of the time it goes after the verb.
- It means bad, wrong and badly.
- As an adverb, it is never used with the verb ‘ser’.
- As an adjective, ‘mal’ goes before singular masculine nouns. It means ‘bad’ and it is used with the verb ‘ser’.
- It’s always an adjective and it’s placed after a masculine noun.
- Describes a noun’s personality, qualities or abilities to do something.
- Expresses that an object or activity is bad.
- Means bad, wicked, evil, mean or harmful.
- Has plural and feminine forms.
- Works with the verb ‘ser’.
- When used with ‘estar’ it means sick or ill.
Now you’re ready to start using these words in your conversations.
Related Resource: Bien vs Bueno