You’ve probably noticed a fairly standard sentence form in French, as many basic sentences begin with il est… or c’est… Both phrases generally mean “it is”, “he is”, “she is”, or “they are,” but there are distinct rules for which structure to use in each circumstance.

Since the translation into English is usually identical (or nearly) in either case, it can take some effort to discriminate the different circumstances and learn which phrase applies to which sentence structure in French. Over time, however, the usage should become more intuitive as you begin to recognize sentence patterns.

When to use c’est…

C’est (or ce sont, the plural form) is generally used for:

  • Names (C’est Maurice.) “It’s Maurice.”
  • Stressed object pronouns (Ce sont eux; c’est lui.) “It’s them; it’s him.”
  • Dates (C’est lundi; c’est le onze octobre.) “It’s Monday, it’s the eleventh of October.”
  • Modified nouns (C’est une fille; c’est une tasse.) “It’s a girl; it’s a cup.”
  • Superlatives (C’est le plus grand garçon.) “He is the biggest boy.”
  • Adjective + à + infinitive constructions (C’est difficile à faire.) “That’s difficult to do.”
  • Adjectives when referring to a previous action or idea (Je veux dormir. C’est évident.) “I want to sleep. That’s obvious.”

When to use il est…

Il/elle est and ils/elles sont are used for other sentence structures, including the following:

  • Professions (Elle est chanteuse.) “She is a singer.” Note that un/une are not used with professions in French.
  • Time (Il est deux heures et demi; Il est midi.) “It’s two-thirty; it’s noon.”
  • Adjective + de + infinitive constructions (Il est difficile d’être calme maintenant; il est facile de rire.) “It is difficult to be calm now; it is easy to laugh.”
  • When the subject pronoun refers to a previously mentioned noun (J’aime cette montre. Elle est très vieille.) “I like this watch. It is very old.”
  • Adjective + que constructions (these also set up subjunctive structures) (Il est nécessaire que vous soyez à l’heure.) “It is necessary that you be on time.”

Note that “general” statements always use il as the subject pronoun; elle is only used when the sentence refers to a specific object or person that is also of the feminine gender.

Using either form

There are certain instances where either form is correct, but each implies a different meaning. The two structures where this can occur are:

  1. Il est + adjective + de, and
  2. C’est + adjective + à

For example, note the different implications of these two sentences:

  • Il est ennuyeux de peindre. (“It is boring, in general, to paint.”)
  • C’est ennuyeux à peindre (“It (or this) is boring to paint.”)

In these circumstances where both structures are grammatically correct but have different meanings, il est reflects a more general statement, while c’est represents a specific comment on the subject at hand.

Applying these rules

Though some of these grammar rules will take time and experience to learn, a good general rule to follow when you’re uncertain about which structure to use is to use il est for broad-level statements, the time, professions, and when referring to a subject that was just mentioned. In most other cases, use c’est.

See the chart below for a quick overview of these rules.

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