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"This/That", "Ce/Ça"

I’ve long been puzzled by the difference between English and French over the use of “this/that” and “ce/ça”. In English, “this”is a promixal demonstrative pronoun, which is to say that it refers to an object or person near to the speaker. It contrasts with “that”, a distal demonstrative pronoun, use to indicate objects or people far from the speaker. E.g. “This discussion is about pronouns, that one is about verbs.” I was taught at school that in French their respective equivalents are “ce” and “ça”, however as long as I’ve been acquainted with actual French people and literature, I’ve been aware that this is not at all the case. The French frequently say “ce” when I would in English say “that”, and vice-versa for “ça” and “this”.

In the course of doing an exercise on Duolingo today, it occurred to me that the choice of which pronoun is used in French is governed by a completely different rule. Although the proximal/distal distinction is available (“celui-ci” versus “celui-là” etc.), in situations where the choice is between “ce” and “ça” (e.g. colloquial speech), the rule generally applied is thus:

  • “Ce” is always the pronoun used when followed by a noun, e.g. “ce livre”
  • “Ça” is used with an specifying noun, meaning in English either “this” or “that, or even “it”, depending on the context. E.g: “J’aime bien ça!” - “I really like that/this/it.”

To test this theory, I googled a few phrases to see how many results turned up. Here are the results:

“Ça livre” - 74 000 “Ce livre” - 37 100 000

“Cette maison” - 22 200 000 “Ça maison” - 78 800

We’re clearly talking orders of magnitude different likelihood, which would seem to lend weight to my theory. Anyone have any thoughts?

February 10, 2013



I will try to classify these from the French point of view:

  1. Demonstrative adjective: ce, cet, cette, ces: as adjectives, they qualify a noun.

--ce livre, cet ami, cet homme, cette fleur, ces livres, ces fleurs

  1. Demonstrative pronouns: c', ce, ceci, cela, ça, celui-ci, celui-là: as pronouns, they can have a variety of functions in the sentence.

-- c'est clair, c'est moi, c'est mon fils, ce sont mes livres: this is where Anglosaxons get lost, while looking at it from a French perspective, it is rather linear: this/that/it/he/she/they followed by verb être + noun (or nominal group) translate in "c'est" or "ce sont".

-- ceci/cela est à moi (same nuance of proximity/distance as in English), ça m'est égal, j'aime ça, prends ceci/cela, je préfère celui-ci à celui-là.

  1. Voici and voilà mean vois-ici and vois-là respectively:

-- voici mon stylo, voilà mon frère qui arrive, voici ce que je pense

Note: "ça livre" does not mean "ce livre", because "livre" is also a verb (livrer), so chances are that "ça livre" means "that delivers".

"ça maison" does not mean anything as far as I know.

Is is any clearer?


Yes, thanks. That seems to correlate with what I've been thinking. I do still find, however, that French people seem to have a different notion of "here/there" to English people. For example, in the third series of "Engrenages", after he's arrested on accusation of raping a minor, Pierre says to Joséphine (his lawyer), "Sors-moi de là", which of course literally means, "Get me out there". From an English point of view, this is a nonsense statement, since "there" signifies distance, but the essence of the statement is the undesired proximity to the situation, i.e. his involvement in a rape allegation. Contexts like this really confused me for a while, but I've gotten used to understanding that "là" seems to be used to mean (as we would say) "here" in some instances. I've not put my finger on what the rule seems to be here yet.


Strictly speaking, you're right, "là" = "there" and "ici" = "here".

But in everyday French, people frequently use "là" instead of "ici".

It's because "ici" is a bit longer to pronounce than "là". If you have a look at common French, you'll see that the sentences and words used are most of the time shorter than in strict French.

I think that's why people progressively chose to use "là". It's not a conscious change in French, it's just that short sentences and short words are more convenient and don't feel "heavy" while talking to someone else. Because of that change, many people don't make a difference between "ici" and "là". What I mean is that "ici" and "là" could be at the same distance from the person talking, it doesn't matter.

In the other hand, the more distance there is, the less likely they are to use "ici" instead of "là". So basically, you can switch "ici" for "là" more often than the opposite.

Usually, when we want to mean a place far from us, we use "là-bas". This word can be used for a wide range of distances, even from country to country.

Please also note that "ici" and "là" have their specific use in some expressions, and in those cases can't be switched.

Ex : "En Chine, ils mangent du chien, alors qu'ici, on mange des escargots." = "In China they eat dog, while here we eat snails."

In this sentence, the person talking is using "ici" to designate the country where he's living, France. He could not use "là" in this particular case.


Thanks, this is all very interesting and helpful! I can imagine if I were French, this is the sort of thing that would probably annoy me even more than it has confused me as an Englishman.


You are right, the French are not good at applying the rule (because there is one) about here being close in time/distance and there further. As a matter of fact, it is very common that people say "je suis là" while any English person would say "I am here". Don't ask me why... I don't know how come that "là" has taken the lead on "ici".


I think we actually do a similar thing in English. Imagine a scenario where there's a knock at the door, and we cn'f find the keys so we shout "who's there" but we could also be exactly the same distance from the door as the previous instance but instead say to someone else "please find out who's here". I also remember as a child, coming home after school (latchkey kid) and knocking on a neighbour's door asking "is my mum there" only to be told jokingly "no she's here". :-)


I don't agree that's similar. Would you ever ask the person at the door "Who's here"? They presumably don't know who's here, since they're still there (on the otherside of the door). Equally, if you said to the person next to you simply "who's here", that only makes sense in the context of here at the house in contrast with there where the person has come from. Someone is definitely there at the door, while we're here in the house.

The key difference is that in French has somehow "taken the lead" (as Sitesurf puts it) on ici, and the promixity/distance rule has relaxed.


Yes, I agree. Didn't really think this through before I replied. :-)


Yes, you got it right! "Ça" (ceci, cela) replaces a noun while "ce" (cette, cet, ces) is always used with it.

Your post is quite interesting as it reveals one of the problems of native English speakers learning French. I would never even think of such a trouble because I'm Russian and we have equivalents of "ce" and "ça" in Russian.

Thanks for sharing =)

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