The c’est / il est distinction is well covered in learning materials, and I understand that a distinction applies in several contexts. But if we take one of those contexts,

Robert, il est médecin,

Robert, c’est un médecin,

ce appears to function as a personal pronoun. Yet I’ve never seen this acknowledged explicitly nor seen ce included in lists of personal pronouns. (I understand that it has other functions.)

Why is this? Does anyone think that its function here can be more accurately described? Has anyone an explanation for the omissions? Have I simply been consulting the wrong books and articles?

  • Being said that it is not the case in the examples you took. While ce remains always gramatically demonstrative, it happens that syntaxically it sometimes behaves like only some (im)personal pronoun could. (e.g. in inversion subject/verb and misc. other less frequent constructions). That is indeed curious.
    – aCOSwt
    Dec 29 '18 at 12:42
  • @aCOSwt: Thank you for your comment. You’ve caused me to reflect whether a word doing the same work as a personal pronoun need mean that it be classed as a personal pronoun (perhaps in addition to other designations).
    – justerman
    Dec 30 '18 at 14:01
  • by the way, « ce » or « c' » is a rare example of neutre in French, as ceci, cela, mieux, pis. Mais ce serait une faute que le considérer comme un pronom personnel, même s'il semble en remplir la fonction.
    – 5915961T
    Jan 4 '19 at 0:43

It's partly because of conservatism in traditional grammatical analyses of French, that made a strong distinction between personal and demonstrative pronouns and have roots in the grammatical system of the 16th and 17th centuries, a time when cela was only beginning to reduce to ça and hadn't really gained its modern functions as a personal pronoun. Demonstrative pronouns are a common source of personal pronouns after all, and indeed that's how il(s) and elle(s) began their career too.

(I'm mentioning ça because ce function at its allomorph when used with the verb être, they're functionally two forms of a single morpheme)

In practice, ce/ça is the clitic (weak) subject personal pronoun used for non-specific or non-Noun Phrase referents:

  • La course, elle me plaît ("I'm enjoying this race", NP specific subject so il/elle is used)

  • La course, ça me plaît ("I enjoy running", NP subject, but since it's generic ce/ça is used)

  • Courir, ça me plaît ("I enjoy running" non-NP¨subject, so ce/ça is used)

You could extend the same analysis to ça in its usage as a strong object pronoun ("Les pâtes, je les aime" vs. "les pâtes, j'aime ça" vs. "manger des pâtes, j'aime ça").

Ce + être is also the copula, which is what's happening in the question's sentence "Robert, c’est un médecin". In this case, it would be abusive to call ce a pronoun at all: it has no real referent and only functions as a bleached grammatical marker.

While traditional grammars and most pedagogical material don't classify ce/ça among the personal pronouns, you can find some that do, especially those written by linguists. For example, the always very complete "grammaire du français langue étrangère pour étudiants finnophones" does, as well as Paul Rowlett's generativist "The Syntax of French", for a non-exhaustive list.

For further reading, the author of that first grammar has a very comprehensive article arguing for large scale review of the 3rd person pronouns and their extension to some forms usually classified as demonstrative: KALMBACH Jean-Michel, "Le système composite du pronom de 3e personne en français" in Langue française 2014/1 (n° 181), p. 97-117.

  • Thank you for responding. I suppose that the answer was bound to do with the fact that so-called personal pronouns and so-called demonstrative pronouns do pretty similar work. Thanks also for the references, which I will read.
    – justerman
    Dec 30 '18 at 13:42
  • I chose what I consider to be two very similar sentences, both using a copula verb, yet you seem to be distinguishing between them. We agree that the French language is able to deploy either ce or il in order to make useful distinctions, but I’m unable to detect any such distinction in my examples. Is there one? Are not ce and il doing precisely the same work? If ce is a bleached grammatical marker, is the same not true of il?
    – justerman
    Dec 30 '18 at 13:43

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