Distinguish Between the French Expressions 'C'est' vs. 'Il Est'

Aerial view of Paris
"Paris? C'est magnifique!" (Paris? It's magnificent!). Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

The French expressions c'est and il est are extremely important impersonal phrases. They can mean "this is," "that is," "it is," "they are," and even "he / she is." Both c'est and il est are well-used French sayings that date back centuries. C'est la vie is a very old, very common French idiomatic saying, which means "That's life," and "Such is life." It has been around the world and back as a mainstay in dozens of cultures.

In France, it's still used in the same sense as always, as a sort of restrained, slightly fatalistic lamentation that this is how life is and there's not much you can do about it.

By contrast, il est is a bit more straightforward—it means exactly what it says—as in the phrase il est possible, which means "it is possible."

"C'est" vs. "Il Est" Background

Determining when to use c'est versus il est requires understanding the background behind each phrase as well as studying the use of the terms in context. Despite their similar meanings, the expressions c'est and il est are not interchangeable, as these examples show: 

  • Paris? C'est magnifique! > Paris? It's magnificent!
  • Il est facile d'apprendre le français. > It's easy to learn French.
  • C'est une fille sympa, Lise. > Lise? She's a nice girl.
  • Où est Paul? Il est en retard. > Where's Paul? He's late.

C'est has an undefined, exaggerated meaning, such as "Paris?It's magnificent!" By contrast, il est is very literal, as in Il est en retard. 

(He is late.)

When to Use "C'est"  vs. "Il Est"

There are rules that determine when to use c'est and when to say Il est. The table summarizes words or phrases you can use after each of saying. 

Il Est  C'est
Adjective describing a person
Il est fort, cet homme.
(That man is strong.)
Elle est intelligente.
(She is smart.)
vs. Adjective describing a situation
J'entends sa voix, c'est bizarre.
(I hear his voice, it's weird.)
C'est normal!
(That's normal!)
Unmodified adverb 
Il est tard.
(It's late.)
Elles sont ici.
(They are here)
vs. Modified adverb
C'est trop tard.
(It's too late.)
C'est très loin d'ici.
(It's very far from here.)
Unmodified noun 
Il est avocat.
(He's a lawyer.)
Elle est actrice.
(She's an actress.)
vs. Modified noun
C'est un avocat.
(He's a lawyer.)
C'est une bonne actrice.
(She's a good actress.)
Prepositional phrase (people) 
Il est à la banque.
(He's at the bank.)
Elle est en France.
(She's in France.)
 Proper name
C'est Luc. (That's Luc.)
Stressed pronoun
C'est moi. (That's me.)

"C'est" and "Il Est" Swapouts

C'est and il est are the root forms, used for impersonal expressions and general comments, as in: It's interesting, It's nice, It's fortunate, and It's too bad.

When talking about specific people, things, or ideas, c'est and il est may change.

  • C'est becomes ce sont (those are) when followed by a plural noun. In spoken French, though, c'est is often used anyway.
  • Il est becomes elle estils sont, or elles sont (she is, they are, or they are) as appropriate depending on the gender and number of the noun that it is replacing or modifying, as in:
  • Ce sont des Français? Non, des Italiens. > Are they French? No, Italian.
  • Voici Alice—elle est professeur.  > This is Alice—she's a teacher.