Matière, matériau and matériel are 3 French words that are easily confused by learners of French as a foreign language. It is not surprising when you know that in many languages, there may be only one or two translations for the 3 words.
First of all, and before we look at the different meanings of these words, let’s note that matériau and matériel are masculine nouns, but matière is feminine. Indeed, we say:
- Le matériel
- Le matériau
- La matière
So, what is the difference between matière, matériau and matériel?
La matière refers to the substance something is made of.
- C’est en quelle matière ? (What is it made of)
- L’acier est une matière très répandue (Steel is a very common material)
- La matière première (raw material)
Matière can also mean subject, as in school subject for example.
- Quelle est ta matière préférée ? Le français, bien sûr! (What’s your favourite subject? French, of course!) 😉
Matériau is different from matière in that it is the word you need if you want to talk about the material specifically used for building something.
In other words, if the purpose of the matière you are talking about is building, then use the word matériau. Hence, you can say:
- Le bois est le matériau utilisé pour les charpentes. (Wood is the material used for the framework.)
- Nous avons reçu tous les matériaux de construction hier. (We received all the building materials yesterday.)
Matériel refers to the stuff, the tools, the gear, the equipment you need for something.
- Le matériel de bureau (office equipment)
- Le matériel d’escalade (climbing gear)
- Le matériel pédagogique (teaching aids)
There you are, now you know the difference between the 3 French words matière, matériau and matériel, congratulations! 🙂