#frenchpopquiz He’s an actor.
— Found French (@foundfrench) 5 Novembre 2015
In French, how can we say , “He’s an actor?” Most French learners will say “Il est un acteur.”
However, the correct response is either “Il est
un acteur” or “C’est un acteur.” Yes, it’s the least popular response on the poll.
Confused? Fâché(e) ? I understand.
Let me first explain that if you thought the answer was il est un acteur, that’s a very logical error. We all make them. After all, il est means he is, un means a, and acteur is actor. When we string that all together, we end up with what 60% of you responded on Twitter: Il est un acteur.
First, let’s get the easy part out of the way. C’est and ce sont can mean ‘it is’ or ‘they are’, respectively. Those are fairly straightforward because most people know, depending on the context, that ce can mean it, this or that.
C’est la vie. | That’s life.
C’est la belle vie. | This is the life!
C’est difficile. | It is/that is difficult.
Things get a little trickier for people when we want to say something like:
*Click to reveal answers*
Margarita? She’s my sister. |Margarita? C’est ma sœur.
Within the above given context, c’est can be translated as she is. In many beginning to intermediate French classes — even at the university level — this topic might be avoided so as to not disrupt the equilibrium of the students’ sanity; these precious students who may be trying as much as possible to tuck their French understanding into neat little compartments in the recesses of their mind. Hell, most professors will not even mark you off as wrong in intermediate French courses if you were to write elle est ma sœur because they fear overcomplicating it for their students, or because they don’t want to hear your moaning à la “What do you mean that it’s grammatically incorrect to say ‘Elle est ma sœur ?’ This is literally the meaning of these words.”
The difficultly in explaining this to people lies in the fact that you can’t really say that ce can mean he, she or they‑in a vacuum, it cannot. It’s the context, however, that tells you how to translate it. This is where the art of translation comes in.
Now, to put it plainly, you are going to use either c’est or ce sont if what follows is a singular or plural noun, respectively. It’s that simple.
So how do we know if what follows is a noun? You will see that the nouns is preceded by a determiner.
Do the words (in bold) serve as adjectives or nouns in these contexts?
Il est américain. adj.
Ce sont mes amis. noun
I’ve mentioned that you can spot the nouns because they will be preceded by a determiner. What are determiners? They are those little words that signal the presence of a noun. For example, you can make a noun of any word in the observable universe by throwing a determiner in front of it, such as le, la, les, mon, ma, mes, tes, un, une, etc.
So, the trick in knowing whether you must use il est/elle est/on est rather than c’est un(e) or ce sont des, is the following: if a noun follows the verb être, use a form of c’est. Again; you will know if it’s a noun if it’s being modified by a determiner.
|She’s American. |Elle est américaine. No determiner, so américaine does not function as a noun here; use elle.|
|She’s an American. |C’est une Américaine. The determinter tells me that we are dealing with a singular noun; use c’est. Bonus: notice the capitalization for Américain which serves as a noun here.|
|They are Americans. |Ce sont des américain(e)s. (Yes, even partitive articles serve as determiners.)|
I think a lot of people dislike this because, in using c’est, it feels as if they are referring to people as objects. They might also think that whomever they’re talking to will not understand if they’re talking about a he or she. However, keep in mind that context will make that clear. If you really think about it, it’s rare for us to even use he or she in English without first mentioning who it is we are talking about. They are pronouns, after all, whose job it is to replace a previously mentioned, or contextually understood noun.
use a form of c’est un(e) if what you want to say is he is, she is, it is, they are + [a, his, her, my, the, etc.] + NOUN.
use il est, elle est / ils sont, elles sont + ADJECTIVE.
Otherwise, when it comes to professions and nationalities, you can simply drop the determiner in order to use il est/elle est:
Il est un acteur.
✓ Il est acteur.
✓ C’est un acteur.
Elle est une Américaine.
✓ Elle est américaine.
✓ C’est une Américaine.
⚑ Exceptions (This is the French language, after all.)
- You only need to think about the c’est/ce sont and il est/ils sont/elles sont question when you’re referring to something or someone in the third person. I mean, if you want to say to someone, you are an idiot, you probably don’t want to say c’est un idiot(e), unless you’re intentionally not directly addressing them and are referring to them in the third person. You can safely say “Tu es un idiot(e).” That said, you can also say Tu es idiot(e)”, which is more like saying you’re idiotic.
- You can say que + il est mon + noun if a relative pronoun (que) precedes it.
For example, when saying, “He is unaware that he is my enemy”, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “Il ignore qu‘il est mon ennemi.” If I were to instead say, “Il ignore que c’est mon ennemi”, it’s now a bit more ambiguous in this context even if gramatically correct. Are we saying “He’s unaware that it’s my enemy?” or “He’s unaware that he/that guy is my enemy”, now referring to a third party? If you are referring to the same person in both clauses (lui = c’est), then write it as shown in the first example above within this bullet point. If they are not referring to the same person, then you will write it as the second example above within this bullet point.
- This bullet point doesn’t really deal with an exception, but serves as a reminder that, when it comes to language, every rule of grammar can be broken if you believe! Yes, you can make your own exceptions! Why not? If you have transmitted a message‑with mistakes or otherwise‑and have been understood, congratulations; you have participated in communication, which is the end goal of any language. Since you’re here, my guess is that you already find it painful enough speaking to others in French as it is, so you could do with fewer errors. Down the road you’ll probably like to break some rules in order to sound a bit more natural when speaking, but, if you’re like me, you’d at least like to know that you are breaking them in the first place. So yes; feel free to ignore everything you read on here, if you wish. That said, if you want to sound more natural, you’ll actually sound more natural to native speakers if you abide by it.
Note that I have asked several native French speakers about this and they tell me that it certainly sounds more natural to follow the instructions as I’ve just described them. As for saying something like, “Il est mon frère” as a standalone phrase, all agree that it sounds a bit strange. A very small percentage told me that they thought that it sounded strange, but almost passable, whereas a large majority told me that it was absolutely wrong. So why do some think it sounds off to say something like “Il est mon frère”, yet are hesitant to say that it seems grammatically unsound? My guess is that because it is grammatically correct for it to follow the relative pronoun que – ❝Il ignore qu‘il est mon frère❞ – that many native French speakers end up conflating the two.
In short, if you’re referencing a noun, use a form of c’est. “C’est mon frère.”
If a nouns does not follow, chances are that it’s an adjective. In that case, feel free to use il est, elle est, elles sont, etc.
OR, you can just ignore all of this and do whatever you want and tell me how you really feel in the comments or on Twitter!