What are the general rules on deciding between il and ce for referring to an idea in the form of a proposition or other gender-less form (such as an infinitive)?

Examples in English would include:

(a) Is he? That is the question.
(b) Is he? It's hard to tell.
(c) It's hard to know what to think.

What I intended was that in (a) and (b) the pronoun should follow the idea it refers to, but in (c) precede. In (a) the idea is assigned to a class, but in (b) only described. Maybe in (c), the pronoun is expletive and does not refer at all.

Whenever I could use either ce or il please tell me so and what the difference may be. If some third pronoun works better or as well, please also tell me.

This request may be rather indefinite, but if I am obviously overlooking some important factor affecting the choice please let me know using example sentences. Thank you.

  • did you look at yesterday's questions from user1150? They look related: where they any help for you?
    – Frank
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 17:56
  • @Frank. Yes I saw your answer to my comment too. Thanks. I wanted to remove le livre and get a pure case of reference to an idea. For (a) and (b), I wanted to learn whether the Fido? C'est un chien vs. Fido? Il est grand distinction holds even where the thing is an idea, not Fido. jlliagre's answer to user1150 seems to suggest that for my (c) both ce and il are possible.
    – Catomic
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 18:10
  • If it's an idea, I think it's going to be ce, not il.
    – Frank
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 18:33

3 Answers 3

  • (a) Is he? That is the question.


Est-ce qu'il l'est ? C'est la question.


L'est-il ? Telle est la question.

Note that:

Elle est la question. is impossible.

  • (b) Is he? It's hard to tell.

Spoken French:

C'est dur à dire.

Difficile à dire.

Formal, written French:

Il n'est pas facile de le dire/ de le déterminer.

  • (c) It's hard to know what to think.

Casual, spoken French:

C'est difficile de savoir ce qu'il faut penser.

Formal, written French:

Il est difficile de savoir quoi penser.


Well, 'il' directly refers to the person/object concerned, it includes the subject within it, while 'ce' needs the subject to be assigned right after. Ce chien est grand = il est grand ; Cette fille est jolie = elle est jolie ; Cette idée est bonne = elle est bonne (this idea is good = it is good) Does that help you ? :/


I don't have the reputation to comment, but there's a spelling mistake in Jlliagre's answer. It should be "L'est-il?" not "L'est-t-il?"


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