Il est facile? C’est facile? Confusing Pairs: C’est vs. Il Est Posted by Josh Dougherty on Sep 18, 2015 in Grammar
French has many confusing pairs for new learners. This mostly stems from the fact that these pairs only have 1 English equivalent that just doesn’t work in French. For example: Quelle est la différence entre an et année (What’s the difference between an and année)? In English, they both mean year, but the two words in French are different because they each have their own way of referring to how time is being considered in the sentence. To know which word to employ, you have to understand what’s being implied in its usage.
Just like an and année, c’est and il est (and by extension ce sont and ils sont) are not interchangeable. They can mean a number of things: this is, that is, it is, they are, and s/he is.
When I first began learning French, this was a difficult concept for me. Once you see how their usage works, though, you’ll be spitting out your sentences like a native. It might take time, but it will eventually become second nature.
Let’s take a look at how to use them in 4 different environments.
Use il est with an unmodified adverb and c’est with a modified adverb.
Don’t forget that un adverbe modifies an adjective, verb or another adverb and describe when, where, how, and how often. Adverbs are also invariable (quoi?? This means they don’t change. Il est en retard / Elle est en retard. You don’t tag on -e on retard because the subject is feminine.)
So what are unmodified and modified adverbs? Even though adverbs are invariable, it doesn’t mean they can’t be modified further. Let’s take a look at an example:
Je veux rentrer. Il est tard.
I want to go home. It’s late.
Now let’s look at another sentence:
C’est déja très tard, mais je n’arrive pas à m’en dormir.
It’s already very late, but I can’t fall asleep.
Because we modified the word tard with très, we need to use c’est instead of il est.
Use il/elle est when describing a person and c’est when describing a situation.
Don’t forget that un adjectif describes a noun (its color, shape, size, state of being, etc.)
I’ve always found this one very logical. Let’s take a look:
Nathalie ? Oui, elle est très belle.
Nathalie? Yes, she’s very beautiful!
Je n’aime pas entendre ma voix. C’est bizarre!
I don’t like hearing my own voice. It’s weird!
Use il est for an unmodified noun and c’est for a modified noun. This is just like the adverb 🙂
Don’t forget that un nom is a person, place, thing, or idea.
Il est professeur.
He’s a teacher.
C’est un bon professeur.
He’s a good teacher.
Because I’m saying he’s a good teacher, I have to use c’est (also note the usage of the article in the 2nd sentence: if you’re saying what someone’s profession is, you don’t need the article. This changes if you use an adjective to describe the noun.)
People & Proper Nouns & Stressed Pronouns
Use il est to describe a person’s location through a prepositional phrase and use c’est for a stressed pronoun or a modified noun.
Don’t forget that a prepositional phrase says where someone/something is in location to another person/place/thing. A proper name is one you’ll capitalize – Josh, John, and Elizabeth, for example ;-). A stressed pronoun is used to emphasize a noun or pronoun referring to a person.
Il est au théâtre ce soir.
He’s at the movies tonight.
Bonjour, c’est Thierry à l’appareil…
Hi, this is Thierry speaking [on the phone]).
C’est moi !
So there you have it! Not so difficult 🙂 We encourage you to write a few sentences below showing the difference between c’est and il est.