How do we say it is in French? In fact, there are two fundamental French expressions that both translate into English as it is: c’est and il est. But although both of these expressions generally translate the same way into English, when should we use c’est vs il est in French?

In this post, we are going to give you all the elements you need to easily recognize when you should use one over the other. Let’s get to it!

C’est vs Il est: The basics

What is C’est?

C’est in French is the combination of the indefinite demonstrative pronoun ce, and est, which is the verb être (to be) conjugated in the 3rd-person singular of the simple present tense. Since ce is followed by a vowel, ce is contracted to c’.

C’est in English is usually translated as it is, it’s, this is, or that is.

There is also a plural form of c’est, which is ce sont. In English, ce sont translates as they are, those are, or these are.

  • C’est super. – It’s great. – This is great.
  • Ce sont mes livres. – These are my books.

What is Il est?

Il est in French is the combination of il, meaning he, which is the third-person singular masculine subject pronoun, and est, which is the present tense conjugation of the verb être.

Il est can take on other forms to reflect the gender and number of the subject: elle est (feminine), ils sont (masculine plural), and elles sont (feminine plural).

Il est in English literally translates to he is, but can also mean it is. Likewise, elle est translates literally to she is, but in English it can also mean it is when referring to a non-human subject. Ils sont and elles sont both translate to they are in English.

  • Voici Pierre. Il est charmant. – Here is Pierre. He is charming.
  • Voici ma maison. Elle est très grande. – Here is my house. It is very big.
  • Elle est Française. – She is French.
  • Ils sont petits. – They are small.
  • Elles sont jolies. – They are pretty.
  • Il est interdit de fumer ici. – It is forbidden to smoke here.

“It is” in French vs “It is” in English

Many people are tempted to just translate c’est to it is and il est to he is, but it’s not that simple. In fact, c’est and il est both can translate to it is or he is in French. There are cases when you can use both, but they are not always interchangeable. So, how to choose between il est vs c’est?

In English, he is and she is are used to describe people, and it is to describe things or animals. Thus, the only thing you need to pay attention to in English is whether your subject is a male or female human, or if the subject is anything else.

In French, on the other hand, c’est and il est (their other forms included) can be used for people, things, and animals altogether. For example, une maison (a house) is a “she” in French, because it’s a feminine noun.

In fact, the key to determining whether to use c’est vs il est is the kind of words that follow the verb être in the sentence. Let’s look at this in the next sections!

When to use C’est in French

When followed by a determiner + a noun

You have to use c’est when the verb être is followed by a determiner + a noun. As a reminder, determiners in French include words like articles, possessive adjectives, and demonstrative adjectives. This structure is typically used to present someone or something.

  • C’est un chien. – It is a dog. – This is a dog.
  • C’est mon chien. – It is my dog. – This is my dog.
  • C’est ce chien. – It’s this dog.

In plural form, c’est becomes ce sont. So c’est can change in number, but never change in gender.

  • Ce sont des chiens. – They are dogs. – These are dogs. – Those are dogs.
  • Ce sont mes chiens. – They are my dogs. – These are my dogs. – Those are my dogs.
  • Ce sont ces chiens. – They are those dogs. – These are those dogs. – Those are these dogs.

Note that many French speakers tend to use c’est instead of ce sont, even if the noun that follows is in plural form. This is mostly in informal spoken French, however, and it is grammatically incorrect:

  • C’est mes chiens. – They are my dogs. – Those are my dogs.

When followed by a proper noun

When introducing someone or something by a proper noun, we automatically use c’est.

  • C’est Michel, le boulanger. This is Michel, the baker.
  • C’est Paris, la capitale de la France. – This is Paris, France’s capital.

When followed by an adjective describing a general concept

The structure c’est + adjective is used to give an opinion, or to share a feeling or an experience about something as a general concept.

For example, if you are in front of a beautiful landscape, you could give a general opinion by saying “c’est vraiment beau.” However, if you want to describe a specific element of this landscape such as the lake, you will say “il est vraiment beau.”

Note that the adjective following c’est will always take the masculine singular form. This means you can’t say “c’est belle” or “ce sont beaux.”

  • J’ai visité Lyon auparavant. C’est une ville animée. – I have visited Lyon before. It’s a lively city.
  • C’est la vie. On n’y peut rien. – That’s life. There’s nothing we can do about it.

You can add an adverb before the adjective too:

  • On a gagné la compétition. C’est vraiment génial ! – We won the competition. This is really great!

When to use Il est in French

When followed by an adjective describing something specific

Il est is often used with an adjective to describe some specific attribute of the subject. It is common to first use c’est to introduce someone or something, then to describe it with il est + adjective. The adjective needs to agree with the subject in number and gender.

  • C’est mon voisin Charles. Il est gentil. – This is my neighbor Charles. He is nice.
  • C’est la voiture dont je t’ai parlé. Elle est un peu vieille. – This is the car I talked to you about. It’s a bit old.
  • Elles sont magnifiques, ces fleurs. – They are pretty, those flowers.

Now let’s look at a comparison between c’est + adjective vs il est + adjective to see the difference in meaning:

  • Je vois un hérisson dans le jardin. C’est étrange. – I see a hedgehog in the garden. Thats strange. (the situation is strange, as if it’s unusual to see a hedgehog here)
  • Je vois un hérisson dans le jardin. Il est étrange. – I see a hedgehog in the garden. Its strange. (the hedgehog itself is strange)

To tell the time

We saw that il is the third-person singular masculine subject pronoun, but it can also be used as an impersonal pronoun (to tell the time or with verbs to refer to the weather, for example). In French, il est is always used to tell the time.

  • Il est 15 heures. – It is 3pm.
  • Il est minuit. – It’s midnight.

Cases where both C’est and Il est are possible

Confusion on whether to use c’est vs il est stems partly from the fact that, in some cases, either one is correct and the meaning remains identical. In fact, these cases are based on sentence structure, just like the other contexts we’ve seen for each expression in the previous sections.

In the next two subsections we’ll see sentence structures where we can use c’est vs il est interchangeably, whereas in the last subsection we’ll look at a context where the meaning is similar but where c’est and il est each call for specific sentence structures.

When followed by an adjective + De or Que

In this context, our two expressions can be used with an adjective to describe a situation. Here, both act essentially as impersonal pronouns referring to whatever comes after the de or que, so the adjective never takes a feminine or plural form. The same neutral form applies to il est.

  • C’est difficile d’apprendre le japonais. – Il est difficile d’apprendre le japonais. – It’s difficult to learn Japanese.
  • C’est dangereux de rouler trop vite. – Il est dangereux de rouler trop vite. – It’s dangerous to drive too fast.
  • C’est vrai que je suis fatigué aujourd’hui. – Il est vrai que je suis fatigué aujourd’hui. – It’s true that I’m tired today.
  • C’est préférable qu’il ne sache pas. – Il est préférable qu’il ne sache pas. – It’s préférable that he doesn’t know.

When followed by a preposition

When the sentence structure calls for a preposition directly after one of our two expressions, they can usually be used interchangeably. This is only true when c’est and il est refer to something other than a person, however. For people, it’s necessary to use il est (or its other forms).

Whereas we can use c’est regardless of the gender, we need to use either il est or elle est depending on the gender of what we’re referring to. When the object is plural, we must use either ils sont or elles sont; they’re no longer interchangeable with c’est.

  • Où se trouve le Mont Saint-Michel ? C’est en Normandie. – Où se trouve le Mont Saint-Michel ? Il est en Normandie. – Where is the Mont Saint-Michel ? It’s in Normandy.
  • À qui est cette robe ? C’est à moi. – À qui est cette robe ? Elle est à moi. – Whose dress is this? It’s mine.
  • J’ai acheté un gâteau. C’est pour Nicole. – J’ai acheté un gâteau. Il est pour Nicole. – I bought a cake. It is for Nicole.
  • J’ai acheté deux gâteaux. Ils sont pour Nicole. – I bought two cakes. They are for Nicole.

When followed by a profession, a nationality, or a religion

In French, many adjectives can be used as nouns. In this case, we can say essentially the same thing using either c’est or il est, but the sentence structure is slightly different.

This concept compares with English, where you can say either “he is a Canadian” or “he is Canadian.” In the first example, “Canadian” is used as an noun, while in the second it’s an adjective. In French, this same flexibility in usage extends to professions, which can be used as adjectives after il est. This flexibility also extends to other adjectives, which can be used as nouns after c’est.

In these sentence structures, we need to use a determiner after c’est since we’re introducing nouns, whereas after il est we just introduce the adjective. Whether used as a noun or an adjective, the gender and number must always be respected. Likewise, we need to use the correct form of both c’est and il est depending on gender and number too.

Let’s see some examples to see these nuances:

  • C’est un fou. – He is a crazy one. – He is crazy.
  • Il est fou. – He is crazy.
  • C’est une chrétienne. – She is a Christian.
  • Elle est chrétienne. – She is Christian. – She is a Christian.

In these first examples, the difference between the two uses is pretty straightforward: we used c’est un + determiner and c’est une + determiner to introduce nouns, and il est and elle est to introduce adjectives.

  • Ce sont des Marocains. – They are Moroccan. – These are Moroccans.
  • Ils sont marocains. – They are Moroccan. – They are Moroccans.

Here again, we introduce a noun in the first example and an adjective in the second. Remember that c’est becomes ce sont when used in the plural, with ce acting as a demonstrative pronoun. Also, in this context, nationalities start with a capital letter.

  • C’est un grand ingénieur. – He is a great engineer.
  • Il est ingénieur – He is an engineer.

Finally, here we have “ingénieur” being used as a noun in the first example and as an adjective in the second. We can add an adjective to the first statement with c’est, so “grand” modifies “ingénieur.” With il est, however, we can’t also add another adjective, since “ingénieur” on its own is already an adjective modifying il.

Conclusion

In this post, we shed light on how to say it is in French by going over the different uses of c’est vs il est. We first analyzed the two expressions in French and observed that they can both translate to it is, but are not always interchangeable.

We also saw the different forms of each expression depending on gender and number: c’est can become ce sont in plural, whereas il est can become elle est, ils sont, and elles sont.

Then we got into the main factor for choosing the correct option between c’est vs il est, which lies in the words following each expression. To sum up, we covered the three possible contexts:

  • You can only use c’est when it is followed by: a determiner + a noun, a proper noun, or an adjective describing a general concept.
  • You can only use il est when it is followed by: an adjective describing something specific, or to tell time.
  • You can use either one with a slightly different sentence structure to reflect whether it’s introducing a noun or an adjective when followed by: a profession, nationality, or religion.
  • You can use either one when it is followed by: an adjective + de or que, or by a preposition.

It’s a lot to take in, we know. But if you stick to the rules we saw together, you should be able to correctly use c’est vs il est in no time!

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