When to use C’est vs Il/Elle est in French

English speaker! In this lesson, you’re finally going to understand when to use “il est” or “elle est” over “c’est” and vice versa.

Either watch the video below or keep reading.

 

Alors, c’est v il est. Let’s start off with some concrete examples of when we use C’est.

C’est

Introducing nouns

The first way we use “c’est” is when introducing nouns, be it people or plants or whatever. 

“Alors, ça c’est mon oncle Tim.

Et ça c’est Amélie, la femme de Tim.

Et ça c’est leur petit chat, Chamallow. Dis ‘Bonjour’ Chamallow.”

“Ça” is often added before “ça” when introducing someone or something. It’s just how the French speak so I recommend learning it together “ça c’est…” + Amélie or leur petit chat.

Un cher ami, Chamallow

Describing nouns

The second way of using c’est is to describe inanimate nouns. So, not just any noun. They need to be inanimate.

  • C’est une bonne idée.
  • That’s a good idea.
  • C’est dommage !
  • That’s a shame.
  • C’est loin d’ici.
  • It’s far from here.

This all makes sense to English speakers. We see or hear “c’est” and we understand without much difficulty “this is, that is, or it is”. And introducing people and describing nouns is something we do with “this”, “that” and “is”. A nice one-to-one translation.

So, c’est for introducing nouns of any kind and for describing inanimate nouns.

The next part can get a bit tricky so listen carefully as I try and simplify it.

Describing people: Both c’est an il/elle est

You can use both c’est and il/elle est to describe people:

  • Tu savais qu’on avait un nouveau collègue ? C’est un anglais.
  • Tu savais qu’on avait un nouveau collègue ? Il est anglais.
  • Tu as rencontré notre coloc, Anna ? C’est une italienne.
  • Tu as rencontré notre coloc, Anna ? Elle est italienne.

The difference between c’est and il/elle est here is that we’re using “c’est” with a noun which therefore has an article like un, une, le, la, les in front of it, and we’re using il/elle est with an adjective. No article in front.

You can also use a noun in the il/elle form, without an article in front, and it then essentially acts as an adjective:

  • Elle est joueuse de handball.
  • C’est une joueuse de handball.
  • Il est manager.
  • C’est le manager.

Seems strange to ue “c’est” with a person, right? You have to detach yourself from the translation of c’est to this/that/it is in English in this case.

Alors, we’ve dealt with how to describe people with either c’est or il/elle est, but what about inanimate nouns, like un stylo 🖊 ou la mer 🌊?

Describing inanimate nouns with il/elle est

If it has already been explicitly introduced with c’est in the conversation, or it’s known from the context, you use il or elle according to the gender of the noun. I was so happy when this clicked for me for the first time!

Take a look at this ad I saw for a chocolate spread, or une pâte à tartiner. In the bottom left we see “Elle est fraîche mais pas autant que vous”.

It’s Elle because it’s referring to the product, identified and therefore introduced to us previously by the image of the spread or the ad in general. We know what “elle” is. “La pâte”, the feminine noun. “C’est frais” wouldn’t work here because of this rule.

Another example would be the following:

  • Excusez-moi, vous attendez le tram ?
  • Oui, il est en retard.

Why is it il est? Because Le tram was introduced in the previous sentence. Le tram is masculine.

Then we have a more advanced, more nuanced situation with c’est and il/elle est that was hard for me to understand for the longest time.

Imagine you walk into a friend’s new flat or house. A french person may say one of the following:

  • Waouh, il est génial ! for un appartement or elle est géniale ! for une maison!

or

  • Waouh, c’est génial !

 

Both are completely valid but with the choice of phrase the French person makes, he or she is unconsciously communicating 2 different, subtle things.

  • Il est génial ! or elle est géniale ! would be specifically referring to the flat or the house being awesome whereas c’est génial ! refers to something more general, or abstract, such as the idea of them owning this place or it’s awesome that they bought it.

But that’s really going into the nuance. If you walk into your new friend’s place, the most important thing is that you communicate that positive emotion.

 

So that’s it for an overview of c’est v il/elle est in French. How did you find it? If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below and I will get back to you.

 

As you can see, it can be both clear and easy to decide, and can be a bit more complicated with the nuances, but don’t get so bogged down in that that you let it stop you from speaking and trying. I still use c’est incorrectly all the time in conversations. In the heat of the moment, you have to just pick one, and I find c’est the safest choice.

 

Get a free copy of my guide to speaking French with confidence by clicking here.

 

C’est tout pour le moment, je vous verrai dans une prochaine leçon. À la prochaine. Ciao !

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