Bien, the Many Uses of
A Little Word That Means So Much
Table of Contents
Bien is the adverb form of bon, bonne and thus the equivalent of the English adverb “well.”
- Elle travaille bien. (She works well.)
- Je m’entends bien avec eux. (I get along well with them.)
- Il est bien fait, ce type. (That guy is well built.)
- Tu m’as bien compris. (You understood me well = correctly.)
II. “Fine (Nice)”
Occasionally bien is used as a predicate adjective, with the meanings indicated.
- C’est bien. (That’s / fine / great / okay.)
- On est bien ici. (It’s nice here, i.e., a person is in pleasurable circumstances here.)
- Je suis bien. (I’m fine.)
- Je me sens bien. (I feel fine.)
- Elle est bien. Ce sont des gens bien. (She is nice. They are nice people.)
As an intensifying adverb, bien is a more refined equivalent of très = “very.”
- Vous êtes bien bon, bien généreux. (You are very kind, very generous.)
- Il est bien jeune pour être père de famille. (He’s very young to be the father of a large family.)
IV. Makes a Verb Emphatic
The French language, to its sorrow, does not have an emphatic form of the verb, which in English we produce with the help of the auxiliary verb “do.” In spoken English we are actually required to use the emphatic form with certain verbs in certain kinds of sentences:
- A Question: “Do you know the way to San José?”
French: Connais-tu le chemin de San José?
- A Negative Statement: “I don’t know the way.”
French: Je ne connais pas le chemin.
In the above cases, since the “do” is required, it really has no emphatic force at all. In the last line of the following exchange, “do” has its fully emphatic function:
Cowardly Lion. Don’t you believe in spooks?
Tin Woodman: No. Why, o– Oh!
(The Tin Woodman is lifted up into the air by what must be spooks.)
Cowardly Lion: I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do I do I do!
Happily, the French are not completely without means when they feel they really must emphasize the verb. They have, in particular, the adverb bien:
- « Est-ce Georges qui arrive? —Oui, c’est bien lui. » (“Is that George coming?” “Yes, / that is him / that’s definitely him.”)
- « Monsieur X a-t-il parlé à la radio ce matin? —Il a bien parlé, mais sans rien admettre de ses crimes. » (“Did Mr X speak on the radio this morning?” “He did speak, but without admitting anything about his crimes.”)
- Je crois bien que c’est possible. (I do believe that it is possible.)
- Je l’espère bien. (I certainly hope so.)
- Cuisinier. Je crois que Votre Altesse aimera ce nouveau plat. Roi. Nous verrons bien. (Cook. I think Your Majesty will like the new dish. King. We’ll certainly see, won’t we?)
C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon cœur a tant de peine.
It is indeed the worst pain / Not to know why / Without love and without hate / My heart has so much pain.– Verlaine
Aimer bien Is Not the Same As Aimer!
An odd by-product of this emphatic function of bien with a verb is that it can serve to weaken the meaning of the verb aimer. The French verb can be the equivalent of either “to love” or “to like.” Adding bien means: definitely…like. Study this exchange, which occurs in Jean Cocteau’s la Belle et la Bête:
« Vous l’aimez? (“Do you love him?”)
—Je l’aime…bien. Ce n’est pas la même chose! » (“I like him. It’s not the same thing!”)
Or this one, from Marcel Carné’s Enfants du paradis. Natalie is speaking to her friend Baptiste, whom she would like to be her boyfriend:
« Oh, je sais. Tu m’aimes bien. Je me moques, moi, que tu m’aimes bien. Ce que je veux, c’est que tu m’aimes! »
(“Oh, I know: you like me. I don’t give a hang that you like me. What I want is for you to love me!”)
Similarly, bien has a weakening effect when used with vouloir. Observe:
Lui. Voudrais-tu un peu de salade? Moi. Oui, je veux bien.
(Him. Would you like a bit of salad? Me. Yes, I’d like that. [Literally: “I will well.”])
A mere Je veux in this case would be too abrupt.
With another subject than “I,” vouloir bien typically has the force of “to be so kind as to.”
(Polite way of requesting something in a letter:) Nous vous prions de bien vouloir communiquer ces faits à vos collègues. (Please inform your colleagues of these facts.)
V. Bien as a Noun
As a countable noun, bien means a possession.
Il lui a fallu vendre tous ses biens. (He had to sell all his / goods / possessions.)
As a non-count noun, le bien is one of the transcendentals, along with le beau (the beautiful) and le vrai (the true).
Le bonheur est-il le bien suprême? (Is happiness the supreme good?)
Je vais passer mon ciel à faire du bien sur la terre.
I am going to spend my heaven doing good on the earth. – Thérèse de Lisieux
VI. “Many, Much”
As a result, I believe, of its emphatic function (“really, definitely”), bien has come to mean “many, much.” Note that bien used this way, in contrast to beaucoup, does not cause “reduction” of the partitive article.
- Bien des gens sont passés par là. (Many people have gone through the same experience.)
- Il a eu bien de la chance! (He had a lot of luck!)
VII. “Although” (Bien que)
Bien with que forms the concessive conjunction meaning “although”; it is followed by a subjunctive verb.
Bien que nous habitions à côté d’eux, nous ne les connaissons pas, vraiment. (Although we live next to them, we don’t really know them.)
I surmise that this use of bien is another offshoot of its emphatic function: “Yes, it is indeed true that…, and nevertheless…”
VII. Bien in Set Expressions
- aussi bien que = “as well as”
- bel et bien = “well and truly”
- bien entendu = “of course” (literally, “well understood”)
- le bien-être = “well-being”
- le bien-fondé = “soundness” (literally, “well-foundedness”)
- bien-pensant = “right-minded”; les bien-pensants = “right-minded people”
- bien sûr = “of course, for sure”
- Eh bien = “Well, then”
- ou bien…ou bien = “Either…or”
Commentary: Somewhat more emphatic than a simple ou…ou. The second ou bien can be translated as “or else.”
- …si bien que… “…with the result that…” 1
- tant bien que mal = “after a fashion, in a more or less okay way” 2
- The idea is something like: “This was so much the case that…” A slightly longer version, same meaning: Tant et si bien que… ↩
- Literally, “as much well as ill”↩
P. Johnston says
First time I have found this site, will definitely use it again. Excellent, clear concise.
Mad Beppo says
Thanks! I particularly appreciate your calling this file “concise.”
Naba Pal says
Thanks a lot for this post. I have been searching for a long time, a clear explanation of ‘bien’ for a English speaker. Brilliant.
Ça me bien aider.
Mad Beppo says
Merci à vous!
Explications très pédagogiques. Bien à vous.
Mad Beppo says
Awesome post! Merci!
Mad Beppo says
C’est bien gentil à vous!