During your French language stay at the French Immersion School in Montpellier you might have come across these two words for ‘it’. They are both used fairly regularly in both formal and informal language and you will hear your French host family use them as much as your teachers on your French immersion course. So are they completely interchangeable or are there specific situations where you use one not the other? This will be the topic of this article. It’s is a small nuance and if you’re talking to French natives they will immediately know what you mean but if you are preparing for your French DELF exam it’s really good to understand the difference and if you want to be perfect pay attention.
The most common point of conflict is for saying ‘it is’ which can take the forms:
- Il est
- Elle est
Lots of people make the mistake of thinking that the second two (I/E) are for people and the first one (C) is for everything else. This would be wonderfully simple but as every noun is gendered in French this isn’t correct as inanimate objects are still sometimes accompanied by the (I/L) form.
‘C’est’ is used for subjects with a noun. This can seem a little confusing as the subjects are nouns themselves but when the subject is being related to a noun (as opposed to and adjective) the C form is used.
- He is my cousin – C’est mon cousin
- It is my book – C’est mon livre
- It is a dog – C’est un chien
I have highlighted the nouns in bold and you can see that this includes a person, an object and an animal. Particularly most people assume that if you are describing a person with a noun you will use I/E because it just makes sense but I’m sorry to say although you aren’t far off this isn’t right.
Now this next part is a little trickier but once you have it down you will be excelling in your French immersion classes.
When there is no noun (except for the subject) in a sentence but only an adjective you have two possibilities:
- Speaking generally = C
- Speaking about someone or something specifically = I/L
So if you are describing a view at the top of a mountain generally you can use C but if you want to describe a particular aspect of the view like some mountains or a forest you would use I/L.
When using the more general C form everything that followings will be in accordance with it and this takes the form of masculine singular. Even when used for an object that is feminine.
So for example:
- Speaking generally: la mer, c’est beau!
- Speaking about the sea in front of you – la mer, elle est belle!
This also extends to the plural forms too so even if the noun is feminine and plural the adjective will still take on the masculine singular form.
- Speaking generally about flowers – Les fleurs, c’est beau!
- Referring to some flowers you might have seen in a shop – Les fleurs – Elles sont belles!
So this might take a bit of getting used too. You need think about what the sentence includes alongside the subject to quickly know which form to take at the very start of the sentence but this is what you normally do anyway you’re identifying gender etc. It’s easier to get used to the C when there is a noun because it is just a blanket policy. So start here and then take each step slowly. You will start to improve and as you’re doing a language stay in France you will have an infinite supply of examples and opportunities to practice. Some of the most common phrase’s you will encounter whilst learning French in France utilise this because you say them generally. C’est genial!