When you first learn French, it seems easy: C’est means “It is/It’s” or “That is/That’s”, and Il est or Elle est means “He is/He’s” or “She is/She’s” (or “It is/It’s” if the “It” is an object, animal, etc.).
But pretty soon, you’ll probably notice something strange. At times, c’est and il est seem to be mixed up. Or both seem to be used indiscriminately to say the same thing.
What are the rules for using c’est and il est (and elle est)? How can you tell which one to choose?
Let’s look at some guidelines that will help you determine when to use c’est or il est/elle est.
The basic meanings of c’est, il est, and elle est
Let’s start by remembering the very basic, general meanings of c’est and il est/elle est.
C’est generally means “It is/It’s” or “That is/That’s.”
Note that while c’est is generally third-person singular, in some cases, especially in everyday spoken French, it may also be used instead of the third-person plural ce sont. This isn’t always the case, and if you prefer to say ce sont when appropriate, you’ll probably be fine. But it’s good to at least be aware of.
Il est generally means “He is/He’s” or “It is/It’s” if we’re talking about a concrete noun whose gender is masculine. For instance, we can say Il est gentil (He’s nice) or Fais attention avec ce livre! Il est très fragile! (Be careful with that book ! It’s very fragile !)
Elle est generally means “She is/She’s” or “It is/It’s” if we’re talking about a concrete noun whose gender is feminine. For example, Elle est maline. (She’s clever.) or Tu vois cette robe ? Elle appartenait à mon arrière-grand-mere. (You see this dress ? It belonged to my great-grandmother.)
I say all of this to remind you that, in addition to the rules that follow, there are situations where you use these phrases literally. For instance, Salut, c’est moi ! (Hi, it’s me!) or Il est grand (He is or It is big).
But the reason for this article is that things aren’t always so clear. In some cases, c’est and il est/elle est can both stand in for “That/It is”. In others, c’est may refer to a person, animal, or object. Here are some general guidelines that can help you determine whether to use c’est or il est (or elle est).
Telling time: Il est
When saying or asking what time it is, use Il est.
Quelle heure est-il ? (What time is it?)
Il est 10 heures. (It’s ten o’clock.)
Note that while in most cases elle est can be used like il est, you never use elle est when telling time; it’s always ll est.
You may hear c’est used with time, but this would only to be to express or emphasize an opinion about the time, never to announce or enquire about a particular hour.
For instance: Le rendez-vous est à 7h demain? C’est tôt ! (The meeting is at 7am tomorrow ? That’s (really) early!).
Using a demonstrative pronoun: C’est
A demonstrative pronoun indicates (and/or possibly emphasizes) where or what something is.
C’est and its plural form, ce sont, are demonstrative pronouns.
You’ll use c’est and sometimes ce sont to confirm or emphasize something’s location, provenance, etc.
C’est à moi. (It’s/That’s mine.)
C’est sa mère. (That’s his mother.)
Ce sont ses jouets. OR C’est ses jouets. (They’re his toys.)
As I mentioned before, in spoken French, people may use c’est instead of ce sont, but if you prefer to use ce sont, that’s perfectly okay, too, although in some cases it may sound strange.
For example, there are certain typical, cliché phrases you’ll hear that are always paired with C’est. Using Ce sont with them isn’t incorrect, and some French people might do it, but it may sound a little off for most Francophones.
These phrases include:
C’est bientôt les vacances ! (Vacation is coming soon!).
C’est mes copines. (These are my friends/My girls). You can read more about this particular example in this very interesting French grammar thread. The thread shows that even native French speakers may be unsure about using c’est and ce sont sometimes!
And you can read this article to find out more about using c’est instead of ce sont.
Giving your opinion about a general idea, situation, or fact: C’est
Generally speaking, if you’re giving your opinion about an abstract idea, a situation, or a fact, you would use c’est. This makes sense, since il est (or elle est)tends to deal with specific living creatures and objects.
C’est nul. (This stinks/This sucks.)
Tu peux venir demain ? Ah, c’est super! (You can come tomorrow ? Oh, that’s great!)
Ce n’est pas une bonne idée. (That’s not a good idea.)
Note that c’est can also be used to indicate a general opinion of something specific. For instance, you might hear a French person say something like Paris, c’est beau. This is referring to the overall feeling they get from Paris.
When using c’est in this type of situation, the gender remains masculine.
Sometimes you can also see this structure the other way: C’est beau, Paris.
Here’s another typical phrase you’ll probably run into: C’est beau, l’amour.
You can see some additional examples of this structure, as well as how they compare with similar sentences that use il est/elle est, on this helpful webpage.
Giving your opinion about a specific living being or object: Il est/Elle est; sometimes C’est
Since il est/elle est generally means he is/she is/it (object or animal) is, if you’re giving your opinion about a person, animal, or object, you would use those.
….Although there are a few exceptions.
Using il est/elle est to talk about a person, animal, or object is probably something you’ve already been doing, since English works this way, too.
Elle est gentille. (She’s nice.)
Quand je l’ai adopté, mon chat était très timide, mais aujourd’hui il est hyper câlin. (When I adopted him, my cat was very shy, but today he’s super affectionate.)
On devrait vendre cette table basse , elle n’est plus à la mode. (We should sell this coffee table, it’s no longer in style.)
There are some cases when c’est would be used instead, notably if you want to emphasize an opinion of someone/something.
C’est un brave homme. (He’s a brave/good man.) (Instead of: Il est courageux.(He is brave.))
C’est une chanteuse exceptionnelle. (She’s an exceptionally good singer.) (Instead of: Elle chante exceptionnellement bien. (She sings exceptionally well.))
Hopefully all of this seems pretty straightforward. Now, it’s time to make things a little more complicated….
Let’s go back to an example I listed under the il est/elle est portion of this rule: On devrait vendre cette table basse , elle n’est plus à la mode.
In everyday spoken French, you might also hear: On devrait vendre cette table basse , ce n’est plus à la mode.
In this case, c’est could replace elle est if the speaker wants to emphasize that the table really is out of style, or maybe they’re giving a general opinion of the current style of the time.
But as with many things that occur when you’re a native speaker of a language, some French people may not even be able to tell you why they opted for c’est or il est/elle est in a statement like this.
That said, when it comes to replacements like this, they’re up to the speaker, so if you feel more comfortable sticking with elle est, that’s perfectly fine – and if you’re not sure, it’s probably the best choice since it’s inarguably grammatically correct.
When talking about a place or time period: C’est
When talking about a place or time period, we generally use c’est.
J’aime Paris. C’est l’endroit que j’aime le plus au monde. (I love Paris. It’s the place I love the most in the world.
Oui, j’ai déjà visité Londres. C’est une belle ville aussi. (Yes, I’ve been to London. It’s a beautiful city, too.)
Je suis accro aux documentaires sur la Belle-Époque. C’est une période fascinante. (I’m addicted to documentaries about the Belle Epoque. It’s a fascinating era.)
Describing someone or something with an adjective and an article or possessive pronoun: C’est
In most cases, when you describe someone or something in a sentence that uses an article or possessive pronoun, you would use c’est.
C’est le cousin de mon oncle. (He’s my uncle’s cousin.)
Je trouve le pelage de mon chien très beau. C’est un dalmatien. (I think my dog’s coat is beautiful. He’s a dalmation.)
C’est le meilleur nageur de tous les temps. (He’s the greatest swimmer of all time.)
Tu es sure que c’est lui que tu préfères ? Ce n’est pas le plus charmant de tous les hommes ici. (You’re sure that he’s the one you like best ? He’s not the most charming of all the men here.)
Describing someone or something with an adjective but no article: Il est/Elle est
The French language tends to avoid using il est/elle est and an adjective with an article. So, if there isn’t an article or possessive pronoun before an adjective, il est/elle est is usually what you would use when describing someone or something.
This includes talking about their job.
Il est beau. (He’s handsome./It’s handsome.)
Elle est gentille. (She’s nice.)
Attention au chien ! Il est féroce ! (Watch out for the dog! He’s ferocious!)
Elle n’est pas très polie, votre fille ! (Your daughter isn’t very polite!)
Elle est avocate. (She’s a laywer.)
REMEMBER that the the adjective-without-an-article-or-pronoun rule does not apply to describing ideas/situations/facts! That’s usually c’est.
C’est formidable ! (That’s wonderful!)
Ce n’est pas juste ! (That’s not fair!)
Je l’aime, mais c’est compliqué. (I love him/her but it’s complicated.)
When either c’est and il est/elle can describe someone/something
Sometimes, you’ll have a choice between using c’est or il est/elle est to describe someone or something.
For instance, both Elle est avocate (She’s a lawyer) and C’est une avocate (She’s a lawyer) are correct.
It’s hard to explain a difference in meaning between these two options. One source I’ve read suggests that the c’est option shows emphasis or else implies a slightly different significance, the way “She’s a lawyer” and “She works as a lawyer” might be in English.
Using an impersonal expression: C’est or Il est
Impersonal expressions are expressions whose subject doesn’t alter, regardless of gender, number, etc. “It is” is an impersonal expression in English. When used in the sense of an impersonal expression, it translates to BOTH C’est AND Il est in French.
The only slight difference is that Il est tends to be used more in formal situations and written French, while C’est is more informal – although not shockingly so. In fact, for one French friend I asked, it’s hard to tell any kind of difference at all between the two.
Regardless, you’ll probably hear a lot of both.
Il est difficile de comprendre. (It is hard to understand.)
C’est difficile de comprendre. (It’s hard to understand)
There are a number of small details that go into using impersonal expressions in French, including when to follow them with de or à, but in order to keep this already complicated lesson about c’est and il est/elle est as simple as possible, we’ll save that for another time.
For now, if you’d like to learn more about impersonal expressions, I recommend this concise, handy article.
Are there exceptions to the c’est or il est/elle est guidelines?
These are general rules that should help you understand whether to use c’est or il est/elle est a majority of the time. But there are always exceptions. After all, language is a living thing, and everyday spoken French continues to evolve, just like any other language.
There are also times where you may think you’ve come across an exception to a c’est or il est/elle est rule but the rule is being followed; it’s just a matter of how you look at it.
For instance, the author of this article points out that in French, articles can be used for something specific or something general. That’s why either one of the following examples could be correct, depending on the speaker’s intention:
1. J’aime la frangipane. Elle est savoureuse. (I love the almond paste (that we’re eating now/have just eaten). It’s full of flavor.)
2. J’aime la frangipane. C’est délicieux. (I love almond paste. It’s delicious.)
This may seem confusing, but on the bright side, it’s also helpful, since it can indicate what the word with the definite article stands for.
Here’s another example: the common saying Elle n’est pas belle, la vie ? (Isn’t life wonderful/Ain’t life grand?).
It seems like C’est should be used here, since we’re referring to an abstract, general idea. But maybe not- maybe la vie refers to the life that the listener or speaker personally knows, the shared experience of being alive or simply one’s own particular life.
Trying to suss out C’est vs Il est/Elle est can lead to some pretty deep thoughts!
The most important things about c’est and il est
Knowing when to use c’est and when to use il est/elle est can be incredibly challenging for non-native French speakers. The good news is, in most cases, if you mess up, people will probably still understand you.
More good news is that the more you listen to and read French, the more you’ll get used to the different examples and structures in this article. I can absolutely promise you that from personal experience. In fact, I didn’t know most of these guidelines specifically; I’ve just gotten used to hearing, reading, and using c’est or il est/elle est in particular phrases and situations.
Although there are a lot of subtleties involved with choosing c’est or il est/elle est, there are a few major takeaways that may be helpful in general, although of course they may not cover every rule or situation we’ve seen here:
C’est is often used with general or abstract ideas and nouns, while il est/elle est is often used with specific living things and objects.
C’est is often used for emphasis.
Il est is always used to tell time.
The best way to study c’est and il est
Hopefully, this article has helped you understand the c’est vs. il est/elle est issue a little bit better. But you may be wondering how to really master it. You can memorize and further study the rules I’ve listed.
But personally, the best way I know of is to read, watch, and listen to French. You can find lots of ways to do all of those things (and more) on our list of free French resources or just by reading, watching, and listening to whatever catches your fancy in French.
Savoir toutes les nuances de c’est et d’il est, ce n’est pas facile (Knowing all of the nuances of c’est and il est isn’t easy). But keep practicing and c’est sûr que tu réussiras ! (you’ll succeed for sure!)