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Ce and ça both mean the same thing (this) in French, so what is the difference between them? When would someone use one over the other?

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This answer will be about the pronouns, but note that ce -- cet, cette -- is also a demonstrative adjective and as such will be followed by a noun and that ça should not be confused with çà which is an old synonym of ici.

Ça is an alternative form of cela; they can replace each other in most if not all contexts, but ça tend to be used more often (but not exclusively) when speaking, while cela tend to be used more often (but not exclusively) in writing. One case where cela is used more often both orally and in writing is when it is opposed with ceci.

Ce, ceci, cela and ça are the neutral demonstrative pronouns. They don't replace a noun (forms with celui, celle, ceux, celles are used in those cases) but something implied or (part of) a sentence.

When they are opposed, ceci is used for the nearer (in space, in time or in the discourse), cela (or sometimes ça) for the further. Alone, ceci is for something quite near and cela or ça for something quite far, but cela is also used for things near, especially for part of sentences which precedes the pronoun.

Usages of ce are more limited:

  • in ce que, ce qui, ce dont, ... then it stands for a thing (it used to be able to stand for a person, but that's rare nowadays) or a (part of) a sentence.

  • as subject of être, ce is there for what comes before (in that case it can be redundant and be present to emphasize), or the situation.

  • there are some other usages, more or less literary (ce me semble), more or less fixed remnants of older structures (Ce disant, ...)

and it is sometimes replaced with ça for emphasis.

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Why is ce sometimes used as a pronoun? For example, c'est is a contraction of ce est, and means 'it is' or 'this is.' –  Orcris Mar 11 '13 at 23:04
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@Orcris: I'm not sure it's exactly a pronoun in those uses -- or if it is, it's a strange one. Note that you write "ce sont" when what follows is plural; and note that the choice between "c'est" and "il est" depends chiefly on what follows ("c'est un homme" vs. "il est grand"; "c'est difficile à dire" vs. "il est difficile de dire ça"). –  ruakh Mar 12 '13 at 0:19
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This isn't correct....@UnFrancophone "c'est" is obviously a contraction of ce + est meaning this is or it is, where ce is it or this. It is most definitely a pronoun. –  Aerovistae Mar 12 '13 at 5:06
    
en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ce#French –  Aerovistae Mar 12 '13 at 5:08
    
This link has the real answer to the question: french.about.com/od/grammar/a/… –  Aerovistae Mar 12 '13 at 5:11
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« il / elle est » becomes « c’est » and « ils / elles sont » becomes « ce sont » IF - an article is followed by a modified noun.

Example:

  • he is a boy = c’est un garçon.
  • they are boys. Ce sont les garçons. :)

« Ça » is an informal use of this and that as I know of. :)

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