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It sounds simple enough, but let me warn you: if it's easy to understand the rule, it's complicated to apply it. It's already hard enough for an English speaker to refer to a thing by him or her, yet it is even harder to use c'est + a person. It sounds in English like you are saying it's + person... very very bad... You need to train a lot on this concept before it becomes natural to you.
Download a great one page cheat sheet of this lesson: PDF

A – To avoid mistakes

In English, you say he is a friend, he is charming. So you use he is + noun (a friend) as well as he is + adjective (charming). Well, in French, we use 2 different constructions.

  • il/elle est + adjective qualificative (plural ils/elles sont)
    il est grand, elle est blonde, ils sont amusants.
    See my audio lesson on French adjectives to master their agreements and pronunciation.
  • c’est + (article, adjective possessive or demonstrative…) +  NOUN
    C’est un ami, c’est mon mari, c’est cette voiture, ce sont mes cousins (or c’est mes cousins… should be “ce sont +plural” – but we use c’est + plural a lot in spoken French although it’s a mistake…).

Adverbs (très, un peu, incroyablement…) don’t “count”. Dismiss them and look for the word that comes after: do you have a noun? If so, use “c’est”.

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Examples (the nouns are in italic):

Le Père Noël: c’est un homme gentil. Il est très gros. Il est incroyablement généreux. C’est un personnage magique.
Les Jackson 5: Ils sont célèbres. Ce sont des chanteurs. Ils sont mignons et talentueux.

Look for the articles (un, une, du, de la, de l’, des, le, la, l’, les) If you have an article, it’s going to be followed by a noun. So don’t say “il est un / elle est une / il sont des etc…”. Say “c’est un, c’est une” with a strong liaison, “ce sont des” etc…. (But watch out for the adverb “un peu”: for that one you’d say “il est un peu timide” for example…

Now, the construction “il est un…” is not wrong. But it’s now used only in formal French, so much so that it now sounds “wrong” in spoken French. And it cannot be used in all situations. In other words, it’s quite complicated, and forums go on and on about “c’est ≠ il est” because French people don’t seem to agree either :-) If you use my explanation, you won’t make mistake. It might not be the big picture, but it’s practical.

Now, some particular cases…

B – Particular Cases

1- Adjectives that come before the noun

As you know, some adjectives come before the noun; grand, petit, joli, jeune, vrai, bon, mauvais…
So what should you do when you have a sentence with one of these adjectives? Well, you have to see if the adjective is followed by a noun, or if it is alone. If there is a noun, use c’est.

C’est une belle voiture.
Elle est belle.

2 – Nouns of profession, nationality, religion

Nouns of profession, nationality, religion… can be used as adjectives – only if there is no other adjective describing it.

So, when it is used as an adjective, use il/elle est.
Il est français. Il est medecin. Elle est juive.

But you can also use it as a noun. In this case it needs an companion word (article, possessive or demonstrative adjectives….)
C’est un Français. C’est un medecin. C’est une juive.

Now, if you wanted to say “he is an intelligent Frenchman”, Frenchman cannot be an adjective because you have another adjective there. You have only one possibility ; c’est un Français intelligent. You cannot say Il est français intelligent…

3 – C’est + adjective masculine singular

To make a live comment, react to something, share your experience, we use the construction c’est + adjective masculine singular. It’s your emotion that comes through, not a specific description.
C’est beau ! c’est bon ! c’est chaud !

Watch out that the adjective cannot be in another gender/number ; c’est belle is not possible, even if you are looking at “la mer”(the sea). The construction demands a masculine singular adjective.

This construction is also use to make comments about something as a category:
la mer, c’est beau!
I am not talking about one sea or ocean in particular, but all the seas in the world.

So, let’s imagine some scenarios:

You are talking about the Mediterranée : you could say. “Comme elle est belle, la mer Méditerranée. Elle est bleue, elle est transparente. C’est vraiment une belle mer.”

You are standing in front of the bay of Cassis, and are overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape. You say “Woah… c’est beau!!” – it’s your emotion speaking, you are talking about the sea but also the light, the rocks, the feeling you are having. Kind of “how gorgeous” in English.

So now, let’s have some examples.

 

C – Examples

Voici mon ami Pierre. C’est un homme charmant (c’est + noun). Il est grand et brun (Il est + adj). Il n’est pas marié (il est + adj). C’est un bon musicien (c’est + noun). Il n’est pas riche, mais il est passionné (il est + adj). C’est un rêveur (c’est + noun), il est un peu timide (il est + adj), mais c’est un bon copain (c’est + noun).
This is my friend Peter. He is a charming man. He is tall and has brown hair. He is not married. He is a good musician. He is not rich, but he is passionate. He is a dreamer, he is a bit shy, but he is a good friend.

Live situation:
C: Comment sont vos tartes ? How are your pies?
S: Ce sont des tartes faites maison (c’est + noun). Elles sont riches et copieuses (il est + adj). They’re home made pies. They are rich and copious. 
C: Est-ce qu’elles sont chères (il est + adj) ? Are they expensive?
S: Non, elles ne sont pas chères (il est + adj). No, they’re not expensive.
C: Les tartes, c’est bon ! (c’est + category = adj masculine singular) Pies are tasty!
S: Oui, et nos tartes, elles sont vraiment délicieuses (il est + adj). Yes, and our pies, they are really delicious.

La mer est bleue. Elle est verte. Elle est violette. Elle est noire (il est + adj). C’est un élément changeant (c’est + noun). C’est toujours beau (c’est + category = adj masculine singular), la mer. Mais la mer des Iles grecques, elle est particulièrement belle (il est + adj).
The sea is blue. It is green. It is violet. It is black. It’s a changing element. The sea, it’s always beautiful. But the sea of the Greek islands, it’s particularly gorgeous.

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 19 years in the US, France, and to people around the world over the phone and by Skype . My method is proven and unique, and, based on my students' goals and needs, I've developed high quality French audiobooks and French audio lessons for all levels. Good luck with your studies and remember, repetition is the key!

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