Today, we’re going to tackle a very tricky question: the difference between c’est and il est. I know these French words confuse everybody. You just never know which one to use and you end up choosing randomly. Please raise your hand if this is your case. No, don’t be shy and pretend that it has never happened to you. You cannot hide, I know that it did.
We use these two constructions to describe things and people around us. However, choosing between the two can be a real problem. If I tell you to translate “she’s a girl” into French, what are you gonna tell me? Elle est une fille or c’est une fille? Hmmm… tricky right? Even my students that are B2 or C1 have no clue. So, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Nevertheless, I’m not gonna give you the answer right now. I will, however, ask you the same question again at the end of this article, so please stay with me a little bit longer.
Why is it that we have this problem, though? Well, it’s because when you want to say “he’s a man” in French, you think that you should use the direct translation of “he,” which is is il. You might also think that by using ce, you will be objectifying the person, thus adding to the confusion. However, if the sentence you want to translate is something along the lines of “it’s a dog,” then you will naturally want to use the correct form, which is c’est un chien. The ce from c’est is translated as “this/that.”
So, when do you we use c’est? It’s actually the word that we use the most in these cases, so you are going to have to refrain yourself from saying il / elle est every time you spot a “he” or a “she” in a sentence. Essentially, the rule is that we use c’est in front of a noun with an article. It’s just as simple as that. So, when you want to say “he’s a boy” in French, you should say c’est un garçon. The same goes for “he’s the man that I met yesterday.” You should translate this as c’est l’homme que j’ai vu hier.
The second use of c’est is in front of an adjective. Let’s imagine that you're visiting a city and you're talking about the overall feeling that you got from it. You would say, for example: c’est beau ici (it’s beautiful here). Therefore, when you describe a situation or an entire class of object, you use c’est. In my example, I’m not referring to anything in particular. I’m not talking about the church or a certain building, so I use c’est.
You also use c’est when you introduce somebody. Let’s imagine that you are going to a party with a friend and he doesn’t know anybody. Thus, when you meet your friends there, you would say c’est un collègue du boulot, c’est Julien (here’s my colleague from work, his name is Julien). You’ll notice that I used c’est twice here. The first time is because we have a noun with an article. I hope you remember what I said about that a bit earlier!
Using il est / elle est
Now, let’s have a look at il est / elle est. When do we use these? The answer it that we use them with a noun or with an adjective. What??? It’s the same as in the previous examples?? Well, kind of. You see, I told you that c’est was used in front of an adjective that is describing a situation, thus providing an overall feel. On the contrary, in this case we are talking about a person or a thing in particular. For example, let’s imagine that you went to see the latest Star Wars. You saw it and you thought it was awful. Your friend asks you alors, ce film? (so, how was it?) and you answer Il est nul ! (it’s awful). Here, we’re talking about a particular movie, so you should use Il est.
Here’s another example for you. You’re once again at a party and you spot this gorgeous girl, but you don’t know her. You think that she might be foreign, so you ask your friend tu sais d’où elle vient? (do you know where she comes from?) and your friend answers elle est italienne, je crois (she’s Italian, I think). In this example, we use elle est because we’re talking about a specific girl. Let’s look at one last example, this time regarding a TV: dis donc elle est grande! (oh my, it’s huge). I hope you got the pattern.
The final use for il est / elle est is with a noun that does not have an article. This usually happens when you talk about your job. For example: elle est prof, c’est ça? (she’s a teacher, right?). Please note that we drop the article in French when we inform someone of our job or of somebody else’s job. You do need to be careful though because it’s perfectly possible to say c’est une actrice incroyable (she’s an incredible actress). However, in this second case, we use c’est + article because it’s a description. In other words, I’m not saying “oh nice to meet you, my name is Caroline. I’m French and I’m a teacher.” No, in this case we already know that she’s an actress. It’s not new information. Instead, we are describing her amazing talent in her job. As a result, we use c’est.
So, remember that question I asked you at the beginning of this article? I asked you how you would translate “she’s a girl.” What do you think? Should you choose elle est une fille or c’est une fille? I hope you chose c'est une fille! Don't forget that with an article + noun, we use c'est. If you chose correctly, be sure to let me know in the comments!
I also have a little challenge for you. I’m going to give you four sentences and you will have to choose between either c’est or il est. I want you to write your answers in the comment section. I'm really looking forward to your answers to this little challenge. After a few contributions, I will post the answers to the quizz.
In the meantime, for more real French, you can find me on Twitter at @French_Blabla or on my blog at frenchteachercaro.wordpress.com, where I can help you speak like a native.
On se voit bientôt pour le prochain article !
Hero Image by the author