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C’est vs. Il est: When and How to Use Them in French

Sometimes French learners get frustrated when they encounter two very similar expressions that are difficult to distinguish. C’est vs. il est is a common example of this. The two phrases mitght seem similar; however, each of them has distinct rules about when and how it should be used.

These two expressions do not need to be confusing. Let’s start at the very beginning and explore the challenge of c’est vs. il est. With some clear rules and helpful hints, you’ll have a better grasp of them in no time.

What does c’est mean?

C’est is ce (C’) combined with est (“is” form of the verb être.) It translates to it is, this is, and that is.

C’est un chat. (That’s a cat.)
C’est mercredi. (It’s Wednesday.)

What does il est mean?

Il est is the subject pronoun il (he) combined with est (“is” from the verb être.) It translates to it is, this is and that is. It also literally translates to he is.

Il est très beau. (He is very handsome.)
Il est huit heures. (It is eight o’clock.)

Are there any other forms of c’est?

C’est in its plural form is ce sont. It means they are or these are.

Ce sont les voitures de mon oncle. (These are my uncle’s cars.)

Are there any other forms of il est?

Il est in its plural form is ils sont.

Ils sont à l’école. (They are at school.)

Elle est is the feminine form of il est. To make it plural, you use elles sont.

Elle est tard. (She is late.)
Elles sont amusantes. (They are amusing.)

Here is a chart to help you see how these subjects are conjugated with the verb être:

Singular Plural
Je suis (I am) Nous sommes (We are)
Tu es (You are) Vous êtes (You are)
Il est (He is) Ils sont (They are – masculine)
Elle est (She is) Elles sont (They are – feminine)
C’est (It is) Ce sont (They are)

Want to review the conjugation of the verb être? Try this helpful site: ‘Être’: Conjugation of This Major French Verb.

Is there a shortcut I can use to know when to use c’est vs. il est?

If you want a quick, bottom-line answer that will be right a lot of the time (but not all the time), here it is:

If the expression is followed by a noun, you will usually use c’est or ce sont.

C’est la vérité. (It’s the truth.)
Ce sont les faits. (These are the facts.)

Aside from that quick note, there are some more specific rules you can use to determine which expression to use.

What are the precise rules for c’est vs. il est? What are the details for usage?

Let’s explore these two expressions in more detail. To determine whether to use c’est or il est, we need to look at what follows the expression.

At first this can seem overwhelming, but don’t worry! We can break it down into separate parts of speech to make it more manageable.

What if the expression is followed by a noun? Do I use c’est or il est?

Most of the time, c’est is followed by a noun.

Here is a detailed chart of contexts involving nouns for you so you can explore all of the possibilities:

Situation: C’est/Ce sont Il est/Elle est
Before a modified noun

Modified nouns are nouns with modifiers (usually an article or an adjective.)

C’est un chien.
(It’s a dog.)

C’est une grande maison.
(It’s a big house.)

Ce sont de belles robes.
(Those are beautiful dresses.)

Before an unmodified noun

Unmodified nouns are nouns without modifiers (such as articles and adjectives.)

These are commonly used in French with words for professions, religions, and nationalities.

Il est médecin.
(He is a doctor.)

Elle est pharmacienne.
(She is a pharmacist.)

Ils sont français.
(They are French.)

Before a proper noun

Proper nouns are nouns that are a specific name for a person, place, or a thing.

In English, they are always capitalized.

-Qui est à la porte?
C’est Marc.
(-Who is at the door?
-That’s Marc.)

-Quelle est la capitale de la France?
C’est Paris.

(-What is the capital of France?
-It’s Paris.)

Before a pronoun -Qui est là?
C’est moi!
(-Who is there?
-It’s me!)

Ce sont les livres de Sylvie?
-Non, ce sont les miens.
(-These are Sylvie’s books?
-No, those are mine.)

Before a superlative C’est le plus grand de la famille.
(It’s the biggest in the family.)

Ce sont les meilleurs de la classe.
(These are the best in the class.)

Telling dates C’est jeudi, le treize décembre.
(It’s Thursday, the thirteenth of December.)
Telling times Il est huit heures.
It is eight o’clock.

What if the expression is followed by an adjective? Do I use c’est or il est?

Adjectives can be a little bit more difficult. They can follow both c’est and il est.

Here is a detailed chart of when each expression is used with adjectives:

Situation: C’est/Ce sont Il est/Elle est
Referring to a preceding noun (what you’re already discussing now) Sophie est ma tante.
Elle est très jolie.
(Sophie is my aunt.
She is very pretty.)

Regardez ce bateau.
Il est beau.
(Look at this boat.
It is beautiful.)

J’ai acheté une maison.
Elle est grande.
(I bought a house.
It is big.)

Referring to an idea or action that was previously discussed Le prof est très intelligent.
-Oui, c’est évident.
(-The teacher is very intelligent.
-Yes, that’s obvious.)

-Ta soeur parle très bien.
C’est vrai.
(-Your sister speaks very well.
-It’s true.)

Referring to an inanimate noun (situation, opinion, feeling, etc.)

In this case, c’est is always followed by an adjective in the masculine singular form.

C’est difficile, la vie.
(It’s difficult, life.)

L’art, c’est intéressant.
(Art, it’s interesting.)

Want to brush up on your French adjectives? Here is a great video to watch: 100 French Adjectives.

What if the expression is followed by an adverb? Do I use c’est or il est?

This rule is easy. If the adverb is modified, use c’est. If it isn’t modified, use il est.

Here is a helpful chart for adverbs:

Situation: C’est/Ce sont Il est/Elle est
Before a modified adverb C’est très loin du supermarché.
(It’s very far from the supermarket.)

C’est si intéressant.
(That’s so interesting.)

Before an unmodified adverb Elle est tard.
(She is late.)

Il est tôt.
(He is early.)

What about prepositions? Will I use c’est or il est?

Prepositions will follow Il est or Elle est.

Here are some examples using prepositions:

Situation: C’est/Ce sont Il est/Elle est
Before prepositional phrases indicating locations Il est à la bibliothèque.
(He/It is at the library.)

La Joconde?
Elle est en France.
(The Mona Lisa?
She/It is in France.)

Before a prepositional phrase Elle est avec Jean-Claude.
(She is with Jean-Claude.)

Il est de Paris.
(He is from France.)

Need a bit of review with French prepositions? Here is the Essential Guide to French Prepositions.

Are there common French expressions using c’est that I should know?

Bien sûr! (Of course!) There are many French expressions that begin with c’est. Here is a list of some of the most common expressions using c’est:

C’est la vie. (That’s life.)
C’est-à-dire. (That is. / In other words.)
C’est vrai./C’est faux. (That’s true. / That’s false.)
C’est tout. (That’s all.)
C’est parti. (And we’re off!/Here we go!)
C’est comme ça. (It’s like that./ That’s the way it is.)
C’est quoi? (What is it?/What’s that?)
C’est n’importe quoi. (That’s nonsense.)

Are there common French expressions using il est that I should know?

You should know that when telling time and asking for the time, we use il est:

Quelle heure est-il? (What time is it?)
Il est sept heures et quart. (It is seven fifteen.)

What about the expression il y a? Is il y a the same as c’est or il est?

Some French language learners get confused with the expression il y a, but it is actually quite different than c’est and il est.

Il y a means there is or there are. It is usually used in different situations than c’est or il est would be used. It also has a different meaning than c’est and il est.

Here are some examples of when to use il y a:

Before an indefinite article and a noun:

Il y a un garcon qui parle espagnol. (There is a boy who speaks Spanish.)

Before a number and a noun:

Il y a trois tranches de jambon dans le frigo. (There are three slices of ham in the fridge.)

Before an indefinite pronoun:

Il y a quelque chose sur la table. (There is something on the table.)

Wondering about what indefinite pronouns are? Here is an article on some of the common ones: Indefinite Pronouns in French.

Challenge yourself with Clozemaster

Test your skills and see what you’ve learned from this article by playing a selection of French sentences with c’est and il est:

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