C’est Versus Il Est

Comments

You cannot translate c’est = it is, il est = he is. In French, both il est and c’est translate as it is, he is. What matters is what comes next: a noun, or an adjective. This rule is not easy for English speakers: It’s already hard enough 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 c’est ≠ il est lesson: PDF
Let’s start with a summary of c’est versus il est.

1 – Il est Versus C’est – Summary

You cannot always translated “he is” by “il est” and “it is” by “c’est”.
Both “il est” and “c’est” can translate as “it is” and “he is”. And that’s why it’s so complicated!

“Il est”(elle est, ils/elles sont) is followed by an adjective.

Il est gentil. Elle est française. Ils sont américains. Elles sont très grandes.
He/it is nice. She/it is French. They are Americans. They are very tall.
Remember that in French things have a gender. Everything is a “il” or a “elle”.
Nouns of nationality etc… can be used as adjectives in French.
Adverbs (like “très”) don’t count.

“C’est” is followed by a noun.

Before this noun, there could be an article or even an adjective that comes before the noun.
C’est une amie. C’est un chien. C’est mon cousin. C’est une grande fille. C’est Camille!
She is a friend. It is a dog. He’s my cousin. She’s a tall girl. That’s Camille!
The plural of “c’est” is “ce sont” but we don’t use it much in spoken French.

Il est + noun is sometimes possible

“Il est” + noun is sometimes (not always though) possible. However it tends to no longer be used, and sounds quite old-fashioned now.
I never use it personally unless I say “il était une fois”: once upon a time.
So I suggest you don’t either!

C’est + adjective always masculine singular is a very common.

Only used to describe a thing, never a person.
In that case, in theory, you don’t describe something in particular, but its surrounding: the whole situation.
The adjective is ALWAYS masculine singular. “C’est belle” is not possible in French!
C’est bon, c’est chaud, c’est beau… Are very popular now. They could translate as “this is good, hot, pretty” but are often translated as “it’s good, hot, pretty” since that’s what you’d say in everyday English (Hence students thinking “c’est = it is” in English).
The use of “c’est + adj masculine singular” is getting increasingly popular in France: we use it all the time!

==========================

So, now that you are totally confused, let’s dig into this big French mess…

2  – It is + Place, It is + Time and Other Expressions

First, let’s define the purpose of this lesson. This lesson is about translating “he/she/it is” + noun or adjective. That’s what’s tricky in French.

“Il est” is also used in French to express location, tell the time, and in the expression “il était une fois” – once upon a time…

  1. Où est le livre ? Il est sur la table.
    Where is the book? It’s on the table.
  2. Quelle heure est-il ? Il est onze heures.
    What time is-it? It’s eleven.
  3. Il était une fois un roi et une reine qui vivaient heureux dans un beau château.
    Once upon a time there were a king and a queen who lived happily in a beautiful castle.

C’est is also used with questions, dates, adverbs, stress pronouns…

  1. C’est qui ? C’est quand ? C’est quoi ?
    Who is it ? When is it? What is it? (informal way of saying “qui est-ce”, “quand est-ce”, “qu’est-ce que c’est”… More about asking questions in French)
  2. C’est quand ton anniversaire ? C’est le 16 novembre.
    When is your birthday? It’s on November 16th.
  3. C’est trop loin
    It’s too far away.
  4. C’est moi !
    It’s me!

Now, let’s talk about the problem at hand. How to translate “it/ he/ she is” + noun or adjective in French.

First, let’s see what you do in English.

3 – He / She / It Is /  They Are In English

In English, you say s/he is a friend, s/he is intelligent. So you use:

  • he / she / it  is + noun (a friend, a dog…)

as well as:

  • he / she / it  is + adjective (intelligent).

In English, what matters it whether you are describing a feminine, masculine, or neutral being. Then you use “he / she / it” or even “they” and the appropriate verb form of “to be”. And that’s that.

Easy enough!

4 – He / She / It Is In French = C’est, Ce Sont, Il / Elle Est, Ils / Elles Sont

Well, in French, we use 2 different constructions.

  1. Il/elle est + adjective qualificative (plural ils/elles sont)
    Il est grand, elle est blonde, ils sont amusants.
    He/it is tall, she is blond, they are funny.

    See my audio lesson on French adjectives to master their agreements and pronunciation.
  2. 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…).
    He is a friend, he’s my husband, it’s this car, they are my cousins.

So what counts in French is not the “it, she, he or they” but the fact that what follows the verb is a NOUN or an ADJECTIVE. Grammar decides which construction you need to use!

The rule of thumbs is: do you have a noun? If so, use “c’est”.

Study the grammatical constructions of the sentences below (the nouns are in bold): compare the French use of “il est” versus “c’est” to the English translation.

  1. Le Père Noël: c’est un homme gentil. Il est très gros. Il est incroyablement généreux. C’est un personnage magique.
    Santa: he is a kind man. He is very big. He’s incredibly generous. He’s a magical being.
  2. Les Jackson 5: Ils sont célèbres. Ce sont des chanteurs. Ils sont mignons et talentueux.
    The Jackson 5: they are famous. They are singers. They are cute and talented.
  3. Ma maison: c’est une maison de ville. Elle n’est pas très grande. Elle est confortable. C’est une maison agréable.
    My house: it’s a “town” house. It’s not big. It’s comfortable. It’s a nice house.

c'est versus il est in French

5 – C’est Versus Il est = You Cannot Rely on Translating!

So, as you can see with these examples, you cannot rely on the English translation.

You cannot think of “he is” as being “il est” and “c’est” as being “it is” : unfortunately it doesn’t work this way in French!

You also need to remember there is no “it” in French. A book is a “he”, a car a “she”… “il” ou “elle”.

6 – C’est + Adjective Always Masculine Singular

First, c’est + adjective masculine singular is never going to be used to describe a person (or an animal).

  • Regarde Pierre! Il est beau (you cannot say “c’est beau” here)
    Look at Pierre! He’s handsome.

To describe a thing, you could use both a “il est” or “c’est” construction:

  • Pierre: Voici ma maison.
    Here is my house.
    Camille: Elle est grande ! / c’est grand!
    It’s big ! /How big!

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: you are describing a situation more than a specific thing.

  • 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 used 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, “this is gorgeous”…

4
Woah ! Comme c’est beau !

Now this being said, “c’est + adjective masculine singular” is way overused in French nowadays… Maybe because it’s so easy to pronounce… It glides nicely :-) Whatever the reason, we use it all the time, even when a “il est” construction would be more appropriate…

7 – My Tip About Il est Versus C’est

Look for the French 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.

Do Say:  “c’est un, c’est une” with a strong liaison, “ce sont des” etc….
C’est un ami, c’est une belle maison, c’est un garçon intelligent.
He is a friend, it’s a pretty house, he’s an intelligent boy.

Don’t say : “il est un / elle est une / il sont des”.

8 – What About “il est un”?

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 VERY complicated, and forums go on and on about “c’est ≠ il est” because French people don’t seem to agree either :-)

However, if you use my way, and never say “il est un” or “elle est une”, you won’t make any mistake.

It might not be the big picture, but it’s practical.

9 – French Adjectives Which Come Before the Noun

As you know, some French adjectives come before the noun; grand, petit, joli, jeune, vrai, bon, mauvais… There are also the possessive, demonstrative, interrogative adjectives (my, this, which…)

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. It’s a nice car. (belle comes before the noun)
  • C’est sa voiture. It’s his car. (Sa comes before the noun)
  • C’est cette voiture. (cette comes before the noun)

But:

  • Elle est belle. It’s nice. (no noun!)

I know this doesn’t “strictly” follow the construction “c’est + noun”… but you have to be smart about it and understand it’s a particular case.

You are indeed in a “c’est + (adjective that comes before the noun) + NOUN” scenario!

10 – Nouns of Profession, Nationality, Religion

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

When used as nouns, they needs a companion word (article, possessive or demonstrative adjectives….). Use “c’est”

  • C’est un Français. C’est son médecin. C’est cette bouddhiste.

When they are used as an adjective (without modifier), use “il/elle est”.

  • Il est français. Il est médecin. Elle est bouddhiste. 

Now, if you wanted to say “he is an intelligent Frenchman”, Frenchman cannot be an adjective in this instance because you have another adjective there (intelligent).

You have only one possibility ;

  • C’est un Français intelligent. You cannot say Il est français intelligent

I feel your pain… This is incredibly complicated… I really wish I could make it all simpler, but I can’t… This is why when to us “il est” versus “c’est” is one of the most difficult things to develop a sense for in French. Look at the number of comments on this article! If feel lost, you are not alone!

French noun gender masculine

So now, let’s have many examples with explanations. Hopefully that will clear things up. Learning in context is always the thing to do!

Examples With Explanations of C’est Versus Il est

A – First, let’s describe my friend Pierre using c’est and il est.

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.

B – Now let’s imagine this dialogue between a Customer (C) and a Waiter (W), featuring il est versus c’est

C: Comment sont vos tartes ? How are your pies?
W: 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 hearty.
C: Est-ce qu’elles sont chères (il est + adj) ? Are they expensive?
W: 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!
W: Oui, et nos tartes, elles sont vraiment délicieuses (il est + adj). Yes, and our pies, they are really delicious.

C – Now Let’s talk about “la mer” – the sea, which is feminine in French. Note where I say “c’est beau la mer”…

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.

Voilà, see it’s not that complicated after all :-) I suggest you bookmark this page to find it easily, and if you liked this article, you may click on the tag “grammar” located by the title to access more grammar articles, or follow the suggestions below.

Fun Exercise For “Il est” Versus “C’est” – Video

Watch this short video below, and read the description in French. Can you figure out why I use “il est” or “c’est”?

Voici Festnoz – c’est le chien de la grand-mère d’Olivier. C’est un teckel à poils durs (wire hair dachshund). Il est petit. Il est chez nous depuis presque trois semaines car la grand-mère d’Olivier est en vacances.

C’est un gentil chien. Il est en train de jouer avec une bouteille en plastique vide. C’est son jouet préféré.

Jouer avec une bouteille, c’est bruyant. Festnoz, lui, il n’est pas très bruyant. Il est généralement calme et obéissant.

Est-ce que vous pensez qu’il est mignon ?

And now, here is the English translation and the explanation for why I used “c’est” and “il est”. If you don’t understand, I suggest you read the article above one more time!

Voici Festnoz – c’est le chien de la grand-mère d’Olivier.
Here is Festnoz – he is Olivier’s grandma’s dog.
C’est + noun

C’est un teckel à poils durs
He is a wire hair dachshund.
C’est + noun

Il est petit.
He is small
Il est + adjective

Il est chez nous depuis presque trois semaines car la grand-mère d’Olivier est en vacances.
He’s been at our place for almost three weeks because Olivier’s grandma is on vacation.
Il est + location (prime meaning of the verb to be).
Être en vacances = expression.

C’est un gentil chien. Il est en train de jouer avec une bouteille en plastique vide.
He is a friendly dog. He is playing with an empty plastic bottle.
C’est (adjective that comes before the noun!!) + noun
Être en train de + verb = to be in the process of doing, to be doing

C’est son jouet préféré.
It’s his favorite toy.
C’est + (adjective that comes before the noun) + noun

Jouer avec une bouteille, c’est bruyant.
Playing with a bottle is noisy business.
C’est + adjective used in a general statement.

Festnoz, lui, il n’est pas très bruyant.
Festnoz, on the other hand, is not very noisy.
Il est + adjective (in the negative)

Il est généralement calme et obéissant.
Usually, he is calm and obedient.
Il est + adjective

Est-ce que vous pensez qu’il est mignon ?
Do you think he is cute?
Il est + adjective

Click here for more about cats and dogs vocabulary in French illustrated with a Minecraft in French video !

My Final Tip

It’s of course useful to understand the grammatical logic behind the choice of “c’est versus il/elle est”, but ultimately, you need to develop a sense for it, “hear” what is right or wrong.

To achieve this, there is nothing like learning French in context.

I highly recommend you check out my unique downloadable French audiobooks, featuring different speeds of recording and enunciation, and focussing on today’s modern glided pronunciation, exclusively on sale on French Today.

I post new articles every week, so make sure you subscribe to the French Today newsletter – or follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.