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Il Est or C'est?

One of the most common questions I see from French learners is when you should use forms of il est and when you should use forms of c'est. The topic is confusing enough on its own, and it doesn't help that every French grammar has its own way of dealing with the topic. I'd like to share my method with all of you. It's a little unorthodox (and by no means official), but I found it to be quite easy and reliable.

When describing people and things with être in French, you must choose between two types of subject pronouns: personal (e.g. il) and impersonal (e.g. ce). Ce is invariable, so it doesn't change to agree with anything. There is no ces sont.

  • Masculine Singular: il est vs. c'est
  • Feminine Singular: elle est vs. c'est
  • Masculine Plural: ils sont vs. ce sont
  • Feminine Plural: elles sont vs. ce sont

The choice here hinges on the subject complement, which is whatever comes after être. If the complement is just made up of adjectives and/or adverbs, then use a form of il est.

  • Il est très fort. — He is very strong.
  • Elle est belle. — She is beautiful.

Otherwise, if the complement includes a noun/pronoun, then use a form of c'est. Note that c'est can also mean "this is" or "that is".

  • C'est un homme. — He's a man. / This is a man. / That is a man.
  • Ce sont des chats. — They're cats. / These are cats. / Those are cats.
  • C'est moi ! — It's me!
  • C'est Monsieur Incroyable ! — It's Mister Incredible!

There's one important quirk here: professions, nationalities, and religions can act as adjectives after être. This is optional; you can choose to treat them as nouns instead.

  • Il est médecin. — He is a doctor.
  • C'est un médecin. — He is a doctor. / That's a doctor. / This is a doctor.

There's one very important exception to note: c'est should be used when using an adjective to make a general comment about (but not describe) a thing or situation. In this case, use the masculine singular form of the adjective.

  • C'est normal ? — Is this normal?
  • Non, c'est étrange. — No, this is strange.

There are a few rare exceptions to these rules (as well as other nouns that can act as adjectives, like débutant), but I think this is a useful way of looking at this difficult bit of grammar in case the traditional approach doesn't work for you.

August 26, 2014



That is good. I also have written an article regarding the matter: http://spanishplus.tripod.com/french/ConfusingDifferences.htm#CestIlest


Thanks for this explanation. However, the fine folks at about.com, have used a slightly mode of explanation to yours which I"ve been referring to. http://french.about.com/library/weekly/aa032500.htm

Adjectives - Describing a person -- Il est Describing a situation -- C'est

Adverb - Unmodified (just the adverb)-- Il est Modified (adverb with adjective (?)) -- C'est

Noun - Unmodified (just the noun) -- Il est Modified (like the example DXli has shared for professions) -- C'est

Proper Noun -- always c'est

Stressed Pronoun -- always c'est

Prepositional phrases -- always il est

While it is broadly the same, just wanted to point out that for adverbs DXli recommends a blanket 'Il est' the way I understand whereas it would be depending on whether it is modified/unmodified elsewhere. It's actually quite intuitive and logical once you get the difference, I didn't find myself referring to the rules too often.


This is so helpful! I'm getting fairly proficient in French, and yet the c'est vs il/elle est distinction still confused me. Merci beaucoup, c'est tres utile. :)


Thank you for that. I'm continually confused by which to use and this makes it clearer.


tl;dr When describing nouns in French, use "C'est ..." unless it would be followed by

  • an adjective or adverb ("Il est beau.")
  • someone's profession, nationality, or religion ("Il est médecin.")

In those cases, use the corresponding form of "Il est" (e.g. "il est", "elle est", "ils sont", "elles sont").


Thank you so much! I've not yet encountered this issue, but I sure memorize this!


Excellent!! Thanks DXLi :)


Thank you for the very helpful explanation. Bookmarking for future reference.


Thank you thank you thank you!!! I know this information is buried somewhere in the supplementary text, but your post sums it up in an easy to understand manner. You've done a great service :)


Someone asked a question that’s maybe related and I’ve got to answer something long and unreadable:


I think this is related, but more confused, yet with some more informations, what do you think of it?

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