More than but: The other common meanings of “mais”

Mais means “but” in French – but it can also have other meanings. Notably, it’s often used for emphasis — usually to show disbelief or annoyance. It’s also a common filler or transition word.

Let’s get to know the most common meanings of mais.

Mais as “but”

A long-haired gray tabby cat sits on a chair and looks at the camera in a friendly way.
Son chat est très gentil mais c’est le mien que je préfère.

Mais is probably most commonly  used to mean “but” in French.

As is the case with “but” in English, it turns out that there is some debate among hardcore grammarians as to whether or not you can start a sentence with mais, but most everyday people do this.

Also as in English, the idea of opposition can be obvious or more subtle, as in a phrase like Désolé, mais je dois partir (Sorry but I have to go) – you’re essentially contradicting the idea that the other person thought you were going to stay.

Here are some additional examples of mais as “but” in French:

Il a hérité d’une belle voiture mais il ne conduit pas. (He inherited a beautiful car but he doesn’t drive.)

Son chat est très gentil mais c’est le mien que je préfère. (His cat is very nice but I prefer mine.)

Elle gagne bien sa vie. Mais elle n’a pas assez d’argent pour acheter un château. (She makes a good living. But she doesn’t have enough money to buy a castle.)

C’est incroyable mais vrai. (It’s unbelievable/incredible but true. (This is a common, somewhat cliche expression in French.))

Note that French punctuation with mais as “but” is a lot more fluid than it is in English. You can read more about this in our article on ways to say “but” in French.

Mais as a transition word

This use of mais is so similar to another use of “but” in  English that most English speakers won’t bat an eye if they come across it. I know that’s been the case for me.

Here’s an example:

Mais comment va ta tante ? (So/Anyway, how’s your aunt?)

Mais as an add-on to “not only”

In English, there’s the phrase “not only…but (also)…” In French, mais is used in the equivalent: non seulement…mais aussi.

For instance:

Non seulement elle est intelligente mais elle est gentille aussi. (She’s not only intelligent but also nice.)

You can also see mais used this way in the similar expression: non seulement…mais en plus (not only…but, too/also/on top of that).

This one is usually used to express negative sentiments, whereas non seulement…mais aussi can be used for both negative or positive/neutral statements.

For example:

Non seulement je suis en retard, mais il y a une grève de transports en plus ! (Not only am I running late, but there’s a transport strike on top of that!)

Mais as a word used for emphasis

A man and a woman in black pants and colorful patterned shirts stand in the middle of a palm tree- and house -lined street with cardboard boxes on their heads. On each box is a basic drawing presumably of what their faces look like underneath.
Mais qu’est-ce qu’ils foutent ?

In English, you may hear a phrase like “but no!” or “but of course!” ….In fact, that last phrase is often uttered by English-speaking French characters in Hollywood movies.

That’s because, as with “but”, mais can be used for emphasis.

Mais is used for emphasis a lot more often in French than in English. After its use as “but”, I’d say this is the most common way you’ll see it in French.

Mais can be added to a statement to show emphasis, or it can be a part of an emphatic phrase.

Here are some examples of mais added to a statement for emphasis:

Mais putain ! (Fucking come on!/Well, fuck!/Fuck it!)

Mais qu’est-ce qu’il fout ? (What the heck/hell is he doing?)

Mais quand allais-tu me le dire ? (So when were you going to tell me?)

Mais qu’est ce que c’est compliqué tout ça ! (My goodness, this is all so complicated!)

For us non-native speakers, it may be tricky to formulate a standalone emphatic phrase with mais in the heat of the moment, but you’ll definitely hear a lot of French native speakers do it. Exasperated phrases like Mais putain ! or puzzled/amused expressions like Mais qu’est-ce qu’il fait ? abound in everyday informal spoken French.

Mais as a part of several common emphatic phrases

Because mais is so commonly used to show emphasis, some very common phrases using mais have evolved that serve the purpose of emphatic or emotional placeholders and don’t necessarily translate literally.

Two of the most common of these phrases are mais non and non mais. These two are so commonly used in French that we covered them in a separate article.

Depending on the context, mais non can mean “absolutely not”, “of course not”, “Oh no!”, or ”I can’t believe it!”

You’ll often see it used in the phrase Mais non, ce n’est pas possible ! (I can’t believe it!/Oh no! This can’t be happening!) – or its everyday spoken French variant, Mais non! C’est pas possible ! 

Non mais is much more informal than mais non and is usually only used in everyday spoken French. It basically means “No way!” When used on its own, depending on the context, it can also sometimes express outrage, like a much less formal “How dare you?” – roughly equivalent to “Are you kidding me?” or “Get lost!”

Here are some examples of how non mais and mais non are used:

– Tu le trouves plus beau que moi ? – Mais non. (“You think he’s handsomer than me?” “Of course not.”)

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

Non mais, tu es sérieux ? (Are you kidding me? You can’t be serious.)

Non mais, c’est trop moche ce truc. (No way, this thing is so ugly.)

You can learn more about mais non and non mais in our article about them.

These two phrases are the stars of the show, since they’re used very often, especially in contemporary spoken French. But there are several other common phrases in which mais is used emphatically.

These standalone expressions include:

Mais oui ! – But yes!/Of course!

Mais oui, bien sûr. – Yes, of course.

Mais enfin ! – Oh, come on!

Non mais ça va pas (la tête) ? – Are you crazy/Are you out of your mind?

Non mais oh ! – It’s hard to translate this one – consider it a sort of speechless outrage

Mais as a standalone expression of outrage/anger

We’ve seen that mais is often used in a sentence or as a part of a phrase to emphasize something and/or express emotions like disbelief, anger, or outrage. But it can also be used on its own this way.

This is often a heat-of-the-moment thing – for instance, you may see two children fighting and one grabs a toy from the other. The victim of the grabbing might yell (or whine) Mais ! 

In this sense, Mais ! is sort of like “Hey!”

In other contexts, it could be like “Come on!” For instance, the parent who sees the kids fighting might yell Mais ! in outrage at their outburst. 

Where to find other meanings of mais

Our list covers the most common meanings of mais. But if you want to dive deeper, the word’s Wiktionnaire entry is a good place to start. WordReference also lists some less common meanings of mais.

The mais faux ami

Be very careful if you see the word maïs – this means “corn” (“maize” in British English) and has nothing to do with mais!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the meanings of mais.

Do you have a favorite mais expression? Feel free to share it 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.