On Duolingo, one of the sentences given was:

  • "Il devient un papillon."

Most people, including me, translated this to "He is becoming a butterfly", and it was only after checking the comments that I realized that it might mean "It is becoming a butterfly", which is semantically more realistic unless we're talking about some fictional novel where a person actually turns into a butterfly.


  1. Can the sentence Duolingo gave me actually translate into "It is becoming a butterfly"?
  2. If I want a subject pronoun for a non-human non-animal subject, when do I use "il", and when do I use "ça" or "ce"?


After some answers here, I realize that I may be confused about the difference between personal pronouns (Il, Elle) versus impersonal pronouns (Ce). My Question #2 above may be a confusion about this, thinking perhaps that Ce is more likely to refer to a non-human than Il or Elle. So, I will add a third question:

  1. When do I use "Ce", and When do I use "Il" and "Elle"? Or, what is the difference between a personal pronoun and an impersonal pronoun?

Edit Again:

This is now the question I probably was trying to ask all along:

  1. When do I use "Ça", and when do I use "Il" and "Elle"? What is the difference between "Elle devient un papillion" and "Ça devient un papillon"?
  • I find the sentence Il devient un papillion really unusual... It should be elle se transforme en un papillon...
    – Nairolf21
    Aug 12 '15 at 23:22
  • @Nairolf21, with your example sentence, could elle refer to a human (or a caterpillar, or a dog, or a teacup)? That is, is it always grammatically ambiguous what kind of subject (human, animal, object) the word elle refers to?
    – silph
    Aug 13 '15 at 1:15
  • 1
    About 3. => If you want to use a neutral pronoun, your choice should be ça which is a regular subject pronoun working with all sorts of verbs. Beware of the fact that ce the pronoun you mention is only available with ÊTRE for most speakers.
    – GAM PUB
    Aug 13 '15 at 12:42
  • @GAMPUB, can you elaborate what a "neutral pronoun" is? Also, I'm not sure what a "regular subject pronoun" is, but i'll google it and see if i can figure it out.
    – silph
    Aug 13 '15 at 14:55
  • Well. How general would be a description working only for one specific case (ce being only available with BE). A neutral pronoun would be ca (available with all verbs and living outside personal problems). A regular subject pronoun would be a pronoun that can actually be used in general as the subject for verbs unlike ce.
    – GAM PUB
    Aug 13 '15 at 16:12

Il devient un papillon is quite uncommon as a sentence, the usual one is elle devient un papillon as the only well known entity that can become a butterfly is a caterpillar, i.e. une chenille which is a feminine word but in any case, both il and elle devient un papillon are correct.

  1. How these sentences should be translated in English is off topic here but I would probably simply suggest "It becomes a butterfly."

  2. A pronoun for a non human/non animal subject is no different from a human/animal one, it can be either il or elle. Ça is a shortcut of cela and is used to design things that are usually around the speaker like this/that, not persons nor animals unless you want to be rude. I don't see how ce could be used as a subject alone here as ce can only be used with être and not devenir but in any case, ce is not restricted to non human/non animals.

Ce devient un papillon is incorrect while c'est un papillon is correct.

Ça devient un papillon might be used when something inanimate became a butterfly, for example :

  • Qu'est-ce que ça devient un cocon ?

  • Ça devient un papillon !

  • 1
    I was under the understanding that there are times that Ce is restricted to non-human non-animal things: if you see "C'est [adjective]", then the "Ce" here definitely does refer to a non-human non-animal, because otherwise the sentence would be written as "Il est [adjective]"? (But if you see "C'est [determiner]" as in "C'est un", the "Ce" could mean him/her as well as it). Is my understanding correct?
    – silph
    Aug 13 '15 at 1:11
  • 3
    C'est un homme is the correct way to translate He is a man just like C'est un papillon match It is a butterfly. Il est un homme and Il est un papillon is unidiomatic but not il devient un .... C'est + adjective is indeed for things only.
    – jlliagre
    Aug 13 '15 at 5:59
  • Beware of the ce subject pronoun which can only be used with ÊTRE and is different from ça.
    – GAM PUB
    Aug 13 '15 at 12:39
  • I disagree here, as "l'insecte devient un papillon" is common, and is "il devient un papillon". In your answer, it could be deduced that "il devient un papillon" is wrong. "ça" is colloquial. You can use "Que devient le cocon?" "Il devient un papillon" (real term is chrisalide)
    – Quidam
    Nov 11 '19 at 0:27
  • @Quidam L'insecte devient un papillon is not that common, only two hits with Google vs at least a hundred for la chenille devient un papillon. Incidentally, duolingo end up removing that sentence because it doesn't make much sense / lacks usefulness. I didn't suggest il devient un papillon is incorrect. I actually wrote the opposite. Yes, ça is colloquial, or at least lacks formality but the main difference between ça and il is not the register. All the chrysalides are not wrapped by a cocon.
    – jlliagre
    Nov 11 '19 at 9:39

Might it not be that the word papillon here is not referring to a butterfly but to a kind of person who goes from one thing to another in a kind of coquettish way, a kind of dilatante.

  • 1
    Very good remark, but you should expand on it a bit and turn it to an answer. Aug 18 '15 at 14:47
  • Whether it is an animal or a person doesn't change the fact that would be il or elle devient in French while ce devient is incorrect whatever the case and ça devient un papillon is at best dubious.
    – jlliagre
    Aug 19 '15 at 8:33

Did the original sentence refer to a male human becoming a butterfly as in the Zhuangzi story? Zhuangzi rêve qu'il devient un papillon qui rêve qu'il est Zhuangzi qui rêve qu'il devient un papillon... et il se réveille (mais où et quand ?).
If not the Il is strange in French too.

One would rather use ça (or cela) for the subject pronoun:

Ça devient un papillon.

Une chenille, ça devient un papillon.

ça is neutral in the sense you are looking for, it is not sensitive to gender or animacy.

ça and ce are easy to confuse but the first one can be used as a clitic subject pronoun in general (and it is singular) while ce only cooccurs with ÊTRE (and can be singular or plural):

Ça va, ça vient, ça passe, ça marche, ... vs ça sera, *ça seront

*Ce va, ?ce vient, *ce passe, *ce marche, ... vs ce sera, ce seront

  • i don't know what a clicit subject pronoun is (and googling it didn't help, because it only brought up pages related to French and Italian!), but it looks like I don't need to understand that to understand your point about ce only being used with être. Thank you for the idea that ça is gender neutral. Also, you helped me understand that my question really IS "what is the difference between ça and il or elle?". That is, what's the difference between "elle devient un papillon" and "ça devient un papillion"?
    – silph
    Aug 16 '15 at 3:33
  • Clitic is a technical term for words that are always clinging to another. In French, the subjects je, tu, il, ce, on, ils (among others) are always adjacent to a verb (or another clitic: me, le, lui, y, en, ...). The point about *ce is that while je, tu, il, ... are subject clitics and can combine with any verb, ce can only combine with ÊTRE.
    – GAM PUB
    Aug 16 '15 at 3:58
  • thanks for the explanation. (also, is it against Stack Exchange ettiquette to say "thank you" in a comment? i thought i read that someplace but i'm not sure.)
    – silph
    Aug 16 '15 at 4:05
  • I agree with : "une chenille, ça devient un papillon", but you should also mention "la chenille, elle devient un papillon". It depends on how much you "personnify" the subject.
    – radouxju
    Aug 19 '15 at 5:12
  • "La chenille, elle devient un papillon" is awkward for me.
    – Quidam
    Nov 11 '19 at 13:51

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