When to use “mal” or “malo” in Spanish

“Malo” is the adjective (describing word) which normally means “bad” but can also mean “ill”, “poor”, “wrong”. It also has a feminine form, “mala” as well as plural forms, “malos” and “malas”.

Look at these examples:

Empecé a leer un libro tan malo que no podía terminarlo.
I started to read such a bad book that I couldn’t finish it.

¡Mala suerte!: Bad luck! [suerte is a feminine noun]
¡Qué chistes tan malos!: What bad jokes!
No quiero oír las malas noticias.: I don’t want to hear the bad news.

Note: Before a masculine singular noun “malo” becomes “mal”:

Hay un mal olor por aquí.
There is a bad smell around here.

“Mal” is an adverb and describes the way you do something and translates into English as “badly” or “poorly”. Look at the following examples:

El equipo jugó tan mal que perdió el partido.
The team played so badly that they lost the match.

El niño duerme mal por la noche.
The child sleeps badly at night.

La máquina está mal diseñada.
The machine is poorly designed.

Has escrito mal la palabra.
You have spelt the word wrong.

Ella habla mal en alemán.
She speaks badly in German.

• With “estar”, mal can mean “sick” or “ill”:

Estoy mal, no puedo trabajar hoy.
I’m ill, I can’t work today.

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