The surprising meanings of Mais non and Non mais

If you speak even a little French, you’ve probably learned that the word mais means “but”.

But with this in mind, you may have come upon some phrases with mais that surprised you, including Mais non and Non mais.

Let’s learn about the meanings of mais non and non mais!

What does Mais non mean?

Two very elaborate cakes. One has red icing with chocolate fondant seeming to drip from its top. It's topped by raspberries and roses. The second is a nude chocolate cake with white cream, topped by a mound of blueberries and perhaps profiteroles.
Alors, tu trouves que son gâteau est mieux que le mien? Mais non !

Taken apart and taken literally, the phrase Mais non means “But no”.

You may sometimes encounter it this way in French books, movies, TV shows, and everyday speech.

But Mais non also has a common connotation. When these two words come together, they essentially mean “Of course not!, “Absolutely not!”, or “I can’t believe it!”

For example:

  • Alors, tu trouves que son gâteau est mieux que le mien ?  (So, you think his cake is better than mine?)
  • Mais non ! (Absolutely not!)


Mais non, ce n’est pas possible ! (I can’t believe it/Oh no! This can’t be happening!)

(Note that in informal spoken French, the n sound in this expression is often dropped. Although grammatically incorrect, this phrase would often be heard as:  Mais non, c’est pas possible ! )

With Mais non, intonation is very important, and the more you listen to French, the more ways you’ll hear this expression said in different ways. It can express everything from exasperation, to reassurance, to a light brushing off, to disbelief.

If you want to get a sense of these different intonations, type “Mais non” into the YouTube search bar. You’ll probably get results like Henri Salvador’s famous eponymous song (more on that further on), but you’ll also find lots of videos of people using this phrase to react in different ways. That said, it’s probably best not to do this search in public, in case  you come upon anything that’s NSFW.

What does Non mais mean?

Non mais literally means “No but”. It sounds like something a person would say when not really thinking about word order, and that’s fitting, because it essentially means “No way!”

Non mais can be part of a sentence:

Non mais il exagère. (No way! He’s gone too far.)

or on its own:

For instance, say a man who’s been rebuffed tries to take a woman’s hand even so. She might brush him off with an outraged Non mais ! (No way!/Get lost!/Are you kidding?)

Non mais is fairly informal. You’ll often hear it used by French teenagers and reality TV stars. But interestingly, despite its popularity with the youth, the phrase has been in use since at least 1911.

As I suggested for Mais non, it could be a good idea to do a YouTube search for Non mais to hear how the intonation of the phrase changes in different contexts. Again, it’s best to do this search when not in public, in case you come upon anything that’s NSFW.

What’s the difference between Mais non and Non mais?

There are three basic differences between Mais non and Non mais:

  1. Mais non tends to be a little less strong than Non mais.  
  2. Mais non is more formal or standard French than Non mais.
  3. Non mais tends to be used mostly in oral language, while Mais non is commonly used in both spoken and written French.

Keep in mind that these are general rules, so it’s not impossible to, say, see Non mais in writing, or to hear a French person exclaim Mais non ! to show an extremely strong sense of surprise and disbelief.

Emphatic phrases with mais

A cat making a face that looks surprised and disgusted - a perfect Mais non or Non mais face!
Est-ce qu’il aime les chats? Mais non, pas du tout!

Mais non and Non mais could be called “emphatic phrases”.   That is, these phrases may not have the literal meaning of the words that make them up, but are instead used to show strong emotion or to emphasize a point.

For example, I could say Est-ce qu’il aime les chats ? Pas du tout.  Or I could add an extra note of emphasis like so: Est-ce qu’il aime les chats ? Mais non, pas du tout ! In English, these would be like saying “Does he like cats? Not at all.”  vs “Does he like cats? Absolutely not!”

Another common way Mais non and Non mais can be used for emphasis is as a sort of emotional placeholder. For instance: Non mais, tu as vu comment il m’a regardé ?  You could translate this as “I mean, seriously, did you see the way he looked at me?”

There are some other emphatic phrases with mais, including the commonly used Mais oui, which roughly translates to “Certainly!”, “Absolutely”, or “But of course!”

This WordReference entry includes more emphatic phrases with mais.  

Another meaning of mais

All of this leads us to a fact that isn’t often taught to us when we first learn French: In addition to being the most common French word for “but”, mais can also be used as a way to emphasize a statement.

This is why so many stereotypical French characters in English-language TV shows and movies use the phrase “But of course!”

And if you think about it, the same rule applies to “but” in English. For example, you might hear something like, “You’d think my brother would let me borrow his car, but no! I had to rent one!” We just use it less.

Mais non and Non mais in popular culture

Close-up of a record on a record player.

Mais non and Non mais are very common French expressions, so it only seems natural that each one has a particular French pop culture moment associated with it.

And so, our two iconic French pop culture mais non and non mais appearances are:

The song Mais non, mais non by Henri Salvador

Released in 1969, this catchy (and, frankly, to me, a bit annoying) remake of a Swedish hit has been featured in a lot of shows and commercials ever since.  

YouTube video

Oui… mais non by Mylène Farmer

Mylène Farmer’s song Oui…mais non could be considered another pop culture highlight for Mais non, but in this case, the phrase is really just literally its two parts (the song’s title translates to “Yes…but no”)).

YouTube video

Reality TV star Nabilla Bennattia’s Non mais allô, quoi

In 2013, Les anges de la télé-réalité’s  Nabilla Benattia skyrocketed to fame by expressing disbelief that some of her female costars had forgotten to bring shampoo.

Although her entire diatribe is a hilarious mix of air-headed and disgusted, the phrase Non mais allô, quoi (which roughly translates to: “I mean, HELLO”) particularly stood out. It was re-aired, repeated, parodied, and referenced endlessly in France.    

Incidentally, this phrase contains not one but two emphatic expressions: Non mais and quoi, which we covered in a previous article.

Have you heard or used Mais non or Non mais before? Do you prefer one or the other? Feel free to share in the comments!

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.