When you learn French, you realise that it's similar to English in many ways. But there are also lots of differences, sometimes even when saying the most basic things.
One example is expressing ‘it is’ in French, and occasionally, even something as simple as this can cause trouble.
To help, in this post, I’ll go into detail about how to use c’est vs il est in French, explaining the main differences so you’ll always feel confident about using the right one.
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C'est vs. Il Est In French: Overview – Differences Between French And English
In English, choosing between ‘he’ or ‘she’ and ‘it’ is determined by whether you’re talking about a person or a thing. For people (and some animals), we use ‘he’ or ‘she’, but for everything else, we use ‘it’.
However, in French, it doesn’t work like this.
In French, every noun is either masculine or feminine, and il and elle are used with non-human things just as they are for people.
At the same time, French has several other pronouns that don’t have direct equivalents in English.
One of them, ce, is used with the verb être (to be) to make c’est in the present tense – as well as ce sont in the plural and ce sera, ce serait etc. in other tenses.
Often, c’est is translated into English as ‘it is’, but the important thing to remember is that in French, choosing ce isn’t determined by whether you are talking about a person or a thing.
Rather, ce is a neutral or impersonal pronoun that’s often used for talking about things that don’t have an obvious grammatical gender.
At least that’s the theory, but in practice, the best way to understand it is to look at examples to see how things work in different sentences. So let’s do that now.
Être + Adjective + De/Que
Here's how to use French adjectives with être and de/que. Think about the English sentence ‘it’s dangerous to play with fire’.
In this sentence, ‘it’ doesn’t refer to any specific thing – it is being used impersonally. In French, it can be expressed like this:
- Il est dangereux de jouer avec le feu (It is dangerous to play with fire)
In French, the pronoun il is used, and it works like ‘it’ in English. Il doesn’t refer to anything specific, it is being used impersonally.
Here are some more examples:
- Il est intéressant d’apprendre des langues étrangères (It is interesting to learn foreign languages)
- Il est difficile d’en apprendre plusieurs (It is difficult to learn several)
In these examples, the adjective is followed by de and then the infinitive. However, you can also make sentences with que, like this:
- Il est préférable que tu viennes (It’s preferable for you to come (lit. ‘that you come’)
- Il est dommage qu’il ne sache pas (It’s a shame that he doesn’t know)
However, with all these sentences, you can also use the c’est form, like this:
- C’est dangereux de jouer avec le feu (It is dangerous to play with fire)
- C’est dommage qu’il ne sache pas (It’s a shame that he doesn’t know)
The il est version is more elegant or formal and is a better choice for writing, but in informal spoken French, you will frequently hear the c’est form – so it’s fine to use that when speaking.
Describing Events, Actions Or States
When describing events, actions or states, you should always the c’est form. Here are some examples:
- Il va oublier, c’est sûr (He’s going to forget, it’s sure)
(In this sentence, ce refers to the ‘action’ of him forgetting.)
- Je ne peux pas te le dire, ce serait trop facile (I can’t tell you, that would be too easy)
(Here, ce serait, in the conditional tense, refers to the ‘action’ of me telling you.)
- Ils vont se marier bientôt, ce sera une grosse fête (They are going to get married soon, it will be a big party)
(This is an ‘event’ – we’re talking about ‘their wedding’.)
- C’est moche, le temps aujourd’hui (The weather is bad today (lit. it’s ugly, the weather today)
(This sentence is very typical of spoken French. C’est is used to refer to the ‘state’ of the weather.)
The important thing to remember is that when talking about events, actions or states, only the c’est form is possible – you can’t use il est for sentences like these.
Describing General Classes Of People Or Things vs Specific Examples
When you describe people or things, il est and c’est are both possible, but the meaning is different. If you use c’est, it means you are talking in general while il est is used to refer to a specific example of that thing. Look at these sentences:
- C’est froid, la mer (The sea is cold)
- Elle est froide, la mer (The sea is cold)
In English, the translation is the same, but in French, there is a difference. In the first sentence, you are making a general statement about the sea being cold – you’re not talking about a specific sea, you’re just saying that the sea, in general, is cold.
However, in the second sentence, you are talking about a specific sea at a specific time. Perhaps you are at the seaside and you have just dipped your toes in to test the temperature – and if the water is cold, you might say elle est froide, la mer!
(You could equally say la mer est froide, but this kind of sentence inversion is a common feature of spoken French.)
Here are some more examples:
- C’est mignon, les chatons (Kittens are cute). Kittens as a general class.
- Il est mignon, ce chaton (This kitten is cute). This kitten in particular.
- C’est bon, le café (Coffee is good). Coffee in general.
- Il est bon, ce café (This coffee is good). This particular cup of coffee.
- C’est bon, la bière (Beer is good). Beer in general.
- Elle est bonne, cette bière (This beer is good). This particular beer.
Note that the masculine form of the adjective is always used with c’est – the adjective doesn’t ‘agree’ with feminine or plural nouns.
Also, in this type of sentence c’est and not ce sont is used, even with plural nouns (like chatons), to describe things in general.
Telling The Time And Other Time Expressions
When telling the time, you must use il est – using the c’est form is incorrect.
- Il est 5 heures (It’s 5 o’clock)
- Il est midi (It’s midday)
With the words tôt (early), tard (late) and temps (time), you should use il est:
- Il est trop tôt
- (It’s too early)
- Il est déjà assez tard
- (It’s already quite late)
- Il est temps d’y aller
- (It’s time to go)
But with other expressions of time, including days, dates, months and seasons, you should use c’est:
- C’est lundi
- (It’s Monday)
- C’est septembre
- (It’s September)
- C’est le 8 septembre
- (It’s the 8th of September)
Être Followed By Anything Other Than An Adjective
When être is followed by anything other than an adjective, things are a bit easier – because the simple rule is to use ce. There is one main exception to this, as we’ll see in a moment, but by sticking to this rule, you won’t go far wrong. Here are some examples:
- C’est le mien
- (It’s mine)
- C’est mon oncle
- (It’s/he’s my uncle)
- C’est un désastre
- (It’s a disaster)
- C’est ce que j’ai dit
- (It’s/that’s what I said)
- Ce sont des aigles
- (They’re eagles)
- C’était hier qu’il a appelé
- (It was yesterday that he called)
- Ce sera le facteur
- (That’ll be the postman)
Talking About Jobs
The major exception I just mentioned is when talking about jobs, in which case, you use il est (or elle est when talking about a female). Here are some examples:
- Il est professeur
- (He’s a teacher)
- Il est programmeur
- (He’s a programmer)
- Elle est journaliste
- (She’s a journalist)
- Elle est programmeuse
- (She’s a programmer)
As you may notice, in French, there’s no article before the job. In English, we say ‘he’s a teacher’ or ‘she’s a journalist’ – but in French, you don’t use un or une.
However, there is another way to express this. You can also use c’est to say what somebody’s job is, in which case you do need the article, like this:
- C’est un professeur
- (He’s a teacher)
- C’est un programmeur
- (He’s a programmer)
- C’est une journaliste
- (She’s a journalist)
- C’est une programmeuse
- (She’s a programmer)
When saying somebody’s job like this, there is little difference in meaning between the il est/elle est form and the c’est form. However, if the job is modified, you must use the c’est form, like this:
- C’est un bon professeur
- (He’s a good teacher)
- C’est une journaliste célèbre
- (She’s a famous journalist)
- C’est un traducteur qui parle plusieurs langues
- (He’s a translator who speaks several languages)
When you say somebody’s nationality, the simplest way is to use the il est/elle est form, like this:
- Il est allemand (He’s German)
- Elle est thaïlandaise (She’s Thai)
As you can see, the pattern is the same as with jobs, and there are no articles. The only difference is that technically, the words for nationalities are adjectives while the words for jobs are nouns.
Just like for jobs, it is also possible to express the same thing with c’est – and as with jobs, when you use this form, you also need to add the article, like this:
- C’est un Allemand (He’s a German)
- C’est une Thaïlandaise (She’s a Thai)
There is no big difference in meaning here – the difference between il est allemand and c’est un Allemand is similar to saying ‘he’s German’ or ‘he’s a German’ in English.
However, there is a grammatical difference – because technically, with the c’est form, the nationality words are nouns.
It might not seem so important to make this distinction, but you may have noticed that with the il est form, nationalities are written with a lower-case first letter while with the c’est form, they take an upper-case first letter.
This is because, in French, adjectives for nationalities are not capitalised but nationality nouns are, so in writing, it’s something to pay attention to.
Finally – and again, just like for jobs – when the nationality is modified in some way, you must use the c’est form, like this:
- C’est un Allemand riche (He’s a rich German)
- C’est une Thaïlandaise que je connais depuis des années (She’s a Thai I’ve known for years)
C'est Vs. Il Est In French: Translation Tips
To finish, here are a couple of pointers that will help you decide whether to choose il est or c’est when speaking French.
C’est vs Il Est In French Followed By An Adjective Alone
When être is followed by an adjective alone, both c’est and il est are possible, but the meaning is different. Look at this example that shows how it works:
- C’est dangereux (It’s dangerous)
- Il est dangereux (He’s dangerous)
In the first one, the meaning is impersonal. Without any context, we don’t know what we are talking about, but we can imagine that it’s some kind of dangerous situation like walking close to the cliffs: ‘it’s dangerous (to walk close to the cliffs)’.
In the second one, however, we are talking about something specific. With no extra context, we can guess it’s probably a person, and we are saying he’s dangerous.
C’est To Introduce Something, Il To Talk About It Thereafter
When you introduce a noun, you usually use c’est – but thereafter, you use il/elle to describe it (because you describe it using adjectives). Here are some examples:
- C’est ma voiture, elle est neuve
- (This is my car, it’s new)
- C’est un chien méchant, il est dangereux
- (It’s a mean dog, it’s dangerous)
- C’est un vieil appareil, il est dangereux
- (It’s an old machine, it’s dangerous)
The second and third examples also show how il est can be used with animals or things, not just for people.
A Final Word On C'est Vs. Il Est In French
In this post, I’ve given you a broad overview of how to use c’est vs il est in French. However, be aware that native speakers might not always stick to these rules.
So, for example, you may hear them use c’est when, according to what we’ve seen here, il est seems more appropriate.
The best thing to do is to keep your ears open and copy what native French speakers say – because when learning a foreign language, that is almost always your best guide.