C’est vs Il est

C'est vs il est
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It is, This is, He is

The French expressions c’est and il est can be tricky because they are synonymous but not interchangeable.* Which one to use depends less on meaning than it does on grammar.

Par exemple…

J’aime ce tableau. Il est joli.   I like this picture, it’s pretty.
C’est un joli tableau.   It’s a pretty picture.

Before diving into usage, take a look at the different forms:

  • C’est is neuter singular; its plural form is ce sont. However, c’est is used informally for both.
  • Il est is masculine singular; its other forms are elle est (feminine singular), ils sont (masculine plural), and elles sont (feminine plural).

1. Describing people with c’est and il est

When describing a person, the choice of c’est vs il est depends on whether it’s followed by a noun or an adjective.

  • c’est + determiner + noun (and possibly an adjective)
  • il est + adjective only

Par exemple…

C’est mon mari.   That’s my husband.
Ce sont des amis intimes.   They’re close friends.
Il est sympa.   He’s nice.
Elle est intelligente.   She’s smart.

 Exception: with nouns that describe people (professions, nationalities, religions…), you can use c’est or il est, but there’s a structural difference:

  • c’est un/e + noun (with or without an adjective)
  • il / elle est (+ no article) + noun (which essentially acts like an adjective)
C’est un boulanger.
Il est boulanger.
  He’s a baker.
C’est une bonne étudiante.
Elle est étudiante.
  She’s a good student.
Ce sont des Français.
Ils sont français.
  They are French.

 There is a tiny difference in meaning that you don’t really need to worry about, but if you’re curious …

Il est describes the person’s profession:

– Quelle est sa profession ?
– Il est boulanger.
  – What is his job?
– He’s a baker.
– Qu’est-ce qu’elle fait dans la vie ?
– Elle est étudiante.
  – What does she do?
– She’s a student.

C’est describes who the person is.

– Qui est-ce ?
– C’est un boulanger.
  – Who is it?
– He’s a baker.
– Connaissez-vous cette fille ?
– Oui, c’est une étudiante.
  – Do you know that girl?
– Yes, she’s a student.

2. C’est and il est with inanimate nouns

Describing other nouns is similar, with one key difference.

  • Like for people, c’est is followed by a noun that may or may not be modified by an adjective.
  • Il est can again only be used with an adjective that describes the specific noun.

Par exemple…

C’est une jolie maison.
Elle est jolie.
  It’s a pretty house.
It’s pretty.
Ce sont des vêtements chers.
Ils sont chers.
  They are expensive clothes.
They are expensive.

 But c’est has an additional use: it can be followed by an adjective that describes the general sense of an inanimate noun, something unspecific, an abstraction (situation, opinion, feeling). This adjective is always masculine.

C’est intéressant, la philosophie.   Philosophy is interesting.
(generally speaking, philosophy is interesting)
La musique, c’est bon.   Music is good.
(music in general is a good thing)
C’est beau !   It’s beautiful!
(the room we just walked into)

Compare with il est:

Elle est intéressante, ta philosophie.   Your philosophy is interesting.
(the one we’re discussing)
La musique, elle est bonne.   The music is good.
(what we’re listening to right now)
Il est beau !   It’s beautiful!
(the room you asked me about)
J’entends un bruit.
 > C’est bizarre.
 > Il est bizarre.
  I hear a noise.
 > It’s weird that I hear a noise.
 > The noise I hear is weird.
Il a acheté une maison,
 > c’est magnifique !
 > elle est magnifique !
  He bought a house,
 > it’s great that he bought a house!
 > the house he bought is great!

* Except in impersonal expressions.

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C'est vs il est

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