One big difficulty that French learners often face is not being able to differentiate between C’est and Il est. Although they are both very similar in meaning and can be used interchangeably in many situations, there are distinctions you need to make between the two. Let’s dive in and take a look…
The first big difference between using c’est and Il est depends on whether an adjective or noun comes after it. If you are using an adjective to describe something then use il est. If you are just talking about a noun then use c’est. Here are some examples..
Il est gentil – He is nice (gentil is the adjective)
Il est stupide – He is stupid (stupide is the adjective)
C’est mon ami – This is/That is/It is my friend (ami is the noun)
C’est mon père – This is/That is/It is my father (père is the noun)
You can still use c’est with an adjective as long as you also include the noun.
Il y a une maison – There is a house
Elle est grande – It’s big
C’est une grande maison – It’s a big house
Although the above examples are true, if you are talking about people and their nationalities, careers, religion or other similar describing characteristic you can use either (Il est or c’est).
However, you have to structure your sentence a little bit differently. Take a look at the examples below…
Il est professeur – He’s a professor – CORRECT
C’est un professeur – He’s a professor – CORRECT
Il est un professeur – WRONG
Il est plombier – He’s a plumber – CORRECT
C’est un plombier – He’s a plumber – CORRECT
Il est un plombier – He’s a plumber – WRONG
There isn’t any real difference between the two but using il est should be used when you are talking about someone’s profession whereas c’est is better used if you’re just describing the individual.
If you are talking about objects however Il est can only be used to describe an object that has already been mentioned whereas c’est can be used to introduce an object AND describe it if you would like.
As usual, let’s look at some examples…
C’est un livre – It’s/This is/That is a book – CORRECT
C’est un livre rouge – It’s/This is/That is a red book – CORRECT
Il est rouge – It’s/This is/That is red (Only works if the book was previously mentioned) – CORRECT
Il est un livre rouge – It’s/This is/That is a red book – WRONG
C’est un bâtiment – It’s/This is/That is a building – CORRECT
C’est un vieux bâtiment – It’s/This is/That is an old building – CORRECT
Il est vieux – It’s/This is/That is old (Only works if the building was previously mentioned) – CORRECT
Il est un vieux bâtiment – It’s/This is/That is an old building – WRONG
Another distinction between c’est and il est that we are going to make is that c’est is used when you want to talk about something in a general sense as opposed to il est which is used to talk about something abstract that you can attribute to someone. See the examples below…
C’est bizarre, la religion – Religion is weird (The idea of religions)
Elle est bizarre, ta religion – Your religion is weird (Your religion in particular)
Remember that when using c’est you’re really just talking about the noun in a more general sense rather than attributing it to something or someone specific. In the above example when you say Elle est bizarre, ta religion you are attributing the word religion to someone in particular.
We also use the example of religion because it is something that somebody can have, but it isn’t something tangible such as a physical object.
Here’s another example where we do actually talk about something tangible..
Elle a vu un oiseau – She saw a bird
C’est intéressant – It’s interesting (That she saw a bird)
Il est intéressant – It’s interesting (The bird itself)
See how the first example speaks more about the situation whereas the second one refers to the object that is being spoken about? Try to remember this when trying to figure out whether you should use c’est or il est.
Finally, when you are using an expression where there isn’t something that there is a gender for then you can use either il est or c’est.
Il est difficile de parler français – It’s difficult to speak French
C’est difficile de parler français – It’s difficult to speak French
The word difficile isn’t a noun that has a gender so you can use either il est or c’est. Here’s another example we can use to show this..
Il est triste que mon ami soit parti – It’s sad that my friend left
C’est triste que mon ami soit parti – It’s sad that my friend left
Same thing goes for the word triste. It doesn’t have a gender so you can use either. Just don’t use elle est as this formation is always masculine.
Hopefully after using this guide you have a better idea of in which situations you would use il est and c’est.
What other ways of using il est and c’est do you know about? What examples do you have? Comment below and tell us about them.