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It is my understanding that the following is correct:

Cette pomme est très rouge.

And this phrase can only be written with agreement between cette and pomme.

But there is also:

Ce sont nos fils, Pierre et Paul.

And now agreement is not allowed.

It is my understanding that the first phrase is using 'cette' as a definite article, while the second is using 'ce' as an indefinite demonstrative pronoun, and that this is the reason for the discrepancy (definite articles agree with the word with which they stand, indefinite demonstrative pronouns do not).

However, for me this does not make sense. In Portuguese, saying 'essa maça é ...', we'd classify 'essa' as a pronoun.

  1. Did I say anything false?
  2. what rule can I use that does not depend on morphological classification (or, equivalently, what rule can I use to create the morphological classification?)
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  • 2
    In cette pomme cette is an adjective (demonstrative adjective) and adjectives agree with the noun they modify (gender & number). C'(est) / Ce (sont) is a pronoun (demonstrative pronoun), it's a verbal phrase with no agreement.
    – None
    Commented Jan 8 at 19:15
  • So 'c'est' and 'ce sont' are pretty much unique? The only cases in which one uses ce but does not agree it to anything?
    – josinalvo
    Commented Jan 8 at 22:08
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    @josinalvo It might be more helpful to think of there being two words spelled ce. One is determiner and thus agrees with the noun. Ce pays, cette pomme, ces pays, ces pommes. The other is a pronoun, a special one that shows no agreement. C'est un homme, c'est une femme, ce sont des hommes, ce sont des femmes.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Jan 8 at 22:28

2 Answers 2

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Ce is a different grammatical word in each of the cases you describe.

Cette pomme est très rouge.

and

Ce sont nos fils.

Cette pomme est très rouge, ce concombre est vert, ces garçons sont nos fils. In these sentences ce (cette, ces) is placed before a noun, it is a demonstrative adjective and it agrees with the noun it qualifies, we use it to point to the noun.

Ce sont nos fils, c'est ma pomme. In these sentences ce (c') is placed before the verb être, it is a demonstrative pronoun. As a pronoun it replaces a noun phrase and it is subject of the verb (est/sont). We use it to designate something we are talking about.

Qui sont ces deux garçons ?
Ce sont nos fils.

In this example ce stands for ces garçons.

C'est, ce can also replace a whole sentence as in:

C'est embêtant qu'il neige aujourd'hui.

where c' stands for qu'il neige aujourd’hui.

C'est and ce sont are verbal phrases, ce is a neutral pronoun and only the verb has a singular/plural agreement.

In the cases where we need to use a demonstrative pronoun to designate something specific that shows gender in front of être, then we use celui-ci, celle-ci, ceux-ci, celles-ci.

Showing a photograph and successively pointing at two girls:

Celle-ci est ma fille et celle-ci est ma nièce.

or

Celle-ci est ma fille et celle-là est ma nièce*.


  • Theoretically ci is supposed to designate the nearest thing I'm talking about, and the furthest, but this is not a strict rule (you can read about this here).
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In the expression Ce sont..., the indefinite demonstrative pronoun seems to have fixed the expression to that form, just as in C'est... for the singular. We hear that fixed expression and don't feel a need for further gender agreement.

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