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"J'ai mal à la tête" is a sentence I learned from a podcast for learning French, for complete beginners.

When trying to remember this sentence this morning, I thought it was "J'ai du mal à la tête", but after googling the sentence right now, I see that it's in fact instead "J'ai mal à la tête"!

The WordReference dictionary page says that "mal" can be an adverb or a noun.

Questions:

  1. Is "mal" in "J'ai mal à la tête" an adverb? If it is, then "avoir + adverb" surprises me; can you give me other examples of "avoir + adverb"? If "mal" is a noun, how come there is no determinant (ie, why is it not "J'ai le mal" or "J'ai du mal")?

  2. Is it grammatically correct if I said "J'ai du mal à la tête"?

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J'ai du mal à la tête is technically grammatical but not idiomatic at all, unlike say j'ai du diabète, j'ai de l'eczéma or j'ai de la fièvre.

What is used when you want a name is:

J'ai un de ces mal de tête1.

J'ai des maux de tête.

j'ai mal is equivalent to je souffre so mal might be understood as an adverb here (an invariable modifier word), although it's more avoir mal which is a set expression. Similar ones: j'ai peur, j'ai froid, j'ai faim, j'ai chaud,...

We use it in J'ai mal à la tête, j'ai mal au cœur, j'ai mal au dos, and so on.

There is also an unrelated expression J'ai du mal à... that means It is difficult for me to do sth.

E.g.:

J'ai du mal à répondre à cette question.

1 Although the Académie française doesn't like it...

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  • 1
    So, if I understand you correctly, "avoir mal" can be understood to be a set expression, and so other "J'ai [adverb]" sentences (that is, using other adverbs other than "mal") are unlikely to exist?
    – silph
    Jun 11 at 14:27
  • J'ai peur is similar to j'ai mal and peur is not listed as an adverb.
    – jlliagre
    Jun 11 at 14:32
  • I couldn't find a precise answer but I'm not sure it's an adverb here. The comparison with j'ai peur, j'ai froid, j'ai faim seems to indicates it's a noun. (Although it's a set expression so I don't think it matters that much what category it is). Jun 11 at 14:47
  • @TeleportingGoat Yes, all of them are set expressions. Analyzing their components is moot.
    – jlliagre
    Jun 11 at 14:50
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I This word is here the noun "mal".

(TLFi) I. − Tout ce qui fait souffrir, physiquement ou moralement.
A. − Souffrance qui affecte le corps.
1. [De manière temporaire] Douleur passagère. Mal, maux de gorge, de tête; maux d'estomac, de reins; avoir mal aux pieds, à la poitrine, au ventre.
♦ «Eh bien! c'est donc le mal de dents, m'a-t-il dit.» En effet, il avait une violente fluxion; sa joue droite était enflée et fort rouge (Las Cases,Mémor. Ste-Hélène, t. 2, 1823, p. 223).

II No, it is not correct.


Addition suggested by user Silph's commentary: '1) if "mal" is a noun here, why is there no determiner? 2) why is it not correct? what is incorrect about it? is it ungrammatical? is it unidiomatic? etc'.

1a/ This is without doubt the noun, and this is so because the adverb "mal" has nothing to do with pain. 1b/ The use of the article in French is not as nicely regular as one might think; in all sorts of expressions the article has been lost or is optional. In the case of that very expression, not so long ago Stendhal still wrote "Jai un mal à la tête."

(ref.) tellement l'air de lui sortir de la tête , et lui - même avait une apparence tellement 459 ( 41 ) se trouve incommodée ? J'ai un mal à la tête ...

In fact, in modern French, it is enough to characterize the headache by means of an adjective or adjectival expression to make the article compulsory.

  • J'ai un mal à la tête atroce.
  • J'ai un mal à la tête si mauvais que je m'en taperais la tête contre les murs.

You could say that if there is no article it is because of an erosion more or less rapid of the form that has left no place for the normal form.
2/ Personally I do not find the use of the article so abnormal, especially as there are various intensities of pain depending on the cause of the headache. However, most people will feel that the article should not be used, and so, the usage without the article has given to the expression the turn of a somewhat fixed expression, or idiom, if you prefer; the use of the article, which seems normal has become unidiomatic.

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  • 1) if "mal" is a noun here, why is there no determiner? 2) why is it not gramatically correct?
    – silph
    Jun 11 at 18:34
  • @silph My reply to your questions is in my answer.
    – LPH
    Jun 11 at 19:17
  • the extra explanations help me feel more comfortable with the seeming loosening of grammatical rules that idioms create. i also like learning about the "J'ai un mal _____ " sentences.
    – silph
    Jun 11 at 21:10

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