Is there a rule to when "il", "elle" are used and when "ce", "cela", etc. are used?

C'est sympa. (It is nice)

Y a-t-il une librairie près d'ici? (Is there a bookstore nearby?)

Y a-t-il une règle qui indique quand utiliser « il » et « elle » et quand utiliser « ce » et « cela » ?

  • Thanks for the corrections Stéphane. Evidently I forgot a LOT of French grammar. Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 9:31
  • The examples you give are two very very special cases. Ce as a subject is almost only used with the verb être (or pouvoir être, devoir être, maybe a few others), and y avoir is an impersonal verbal locution (the il in “il y a” is as meaningless as the it in “it rains”). Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 9:32

1 Answer 1


An advice which seems to give some insight for this would be: if you can substitute the it in the English sentence by a this or that then it is probably a ce, cela and other variants of them which is needed in French. You have to be aware that the it pronoun (neutral gender) does not exist in French, that is why it might be tedious to translate sentences such as "This mountain is so big. It should be at least 3,000 meters high.", for which you have to know the gender of the word montagne in French.

More generally, ce, cela (cet, cette, ceux, etc.) are demonstrative pronoun which means they refer to something you already mentioned or something which is obvious according to the context. Whereas il and elle are just the French equivalent of he and she, plus the expression there is/are in English which translation is il y a in French.

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    Ton exemple ne colle pas à l'explication : on ne dirait ni « *this is a good friend » ni « *il est un bon compagnon ». Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 8:41
  • En écrivant je me suis rendu compte que cet exemple ne fonctionnait pas mais, tout de même, il me semble que l'astuce permet de résoudre beaucoup de cas. Après, il existe toujours des exceptions et si vous avez une règle plus générale je suis preneur!
    – Ludovic C.
    Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 8:42

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