C'est vs il/elle est: Saying it is

In French, to express opinions or state facts, by using it is ... can be expressed in two ways: either c'est or il est/elle est. 

It can be tricky to know when to use one or the other, so here's the way to do it!

1. c'est  in sentences it/he/she is + a/the/my... + [noun/name]

C'est une jolie robe.It is a pretty dress.

Qu'est-ce que tu en penses ? - C'est un livre intéressant.What do you think about it? - It's an interesting book.

C'est le fils de Martha.He's Martha's son.

Qui est Sylvie ? - C'est ma sœur.Who's Sylvie? - She's my sister.

C'est la robe que je porte au travail.That's the dress that I wear at work.

If it/he/she is is followed by un/une/le/la... (any form of article / determinant) - it is a beautiful dress / she is a nice person - then you will use c'est.


2. Cases expressing opinions or simple statements (adjectives) about prementioned things, look at these rules:

a - c'est  for general, unspecific statements and opinions

Tu étudies la science ? - Oui, c'est passionnant !Do you study science? - Yes, it's thrilling!

C'est vraiment magnifique ici!It's really beautiful here!

Miam, c'est délicieux!Yummy, it's delicious!
 

In those cases, we're expressing opinions or statements that refer to the thing generally: we're saying science in general is thrilling, or that something unspecified is great or delicious.
Therefore, here we use c'est to say it is.

 

b - il est/elle est  for statements and opinions related to specific things

Tu aimes mon pull ? -Oui, il est très beau.Do you like my sweater? -Yes, it's very nice.

Où est ta tasse ? - Elle est sur la table.Where is your cup? -It is on the table.

Et le lit? - Il est encore dans le camion.What about the bed? - It's still in the truck.

In those cases, the opinions expressed relate to specific items, we know precisely what we're talking about, whether it be my jumper (not jumpers in general), your plate or that specific bed.
Therefore, here we use il est or elle est, depending on the gender of the thing it refers to (remember that things have genders too in French!).

ATTENTION: 
When using il/elle, you have to make adjectives agree accordingly, whereas you always use the masculine with c'est. 
(See Standalone adjectives after c'est are always masculine)

 

Ambiguous cases in French

Look at these two examples talking about soup:

Tu aimes la soupe? - Oui, elle est délicieuse!Do you like the soup? - Yes, it's delicious!

Tu aimes la soupe? - Oui, c'est réconfortant!Do you like soup? -Yes, it's comforting!

Note that in French, both statements look identical (Tu aimes la soupe ?) when in English they mean two distinct things: 
Do you like soup? is a question on soup in general, whereas
Do you like the soup? is asking about a specific soup, i.e. the one they're eating at that moment.

The tricky fact is that in French, you use the definite article le, la, l' for general statements as well as specific the.
See Using le, la, l', les before nouns when generalising (definite articles).

So here you need to know the context to use either c'est (soup in general) or il est/elle est (the specific soup). 

 

See also C'est, ce sont = this is, these are (demonstrative pronouns)

See how to use c'est with adjectives : C'est = It is

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Examples and resources

Où est ta tasse ? - Elle est sur la table.Where is your cup? -It is on the table.
C'est vraiment magnifique ici!It's really beautiful here!
C'est le fils de Martha.He's Martha's son.
Tu aimes mon pull ? -Oui, il est très beau.Do you like my sweater? -Yes, it's very nice.
Et le lit? - Il est encore dans le camion.What about the bed? - It's still in the truck.
C'est une jolie robe.It is a pretty dress.
Tu étudies la science ? - Oui, c'est passionnant !Do you study science? - Yes, it's thrilling!
C'est la robe que je porte au travail.That's the dress that I wear at work.
Miam, c'est délicieux!Yummy, it's delicious!
Qu'est-ce que tu en penses ? - C'est un livre intéressant.What do you think about it? - It's an interesting book.
Tu aimes la soupe? - Oui, c'est réconfortant!Do you like soup? -Yes, it's comforting!
Qui est Sylvie ? - C'est ma sœur.Who's Sylvie? - She's my sister.
C'est une bonne nageuse.She is a good swimmer.
Tu aimes la soupe? - Oui, elle est délicieuse!Do you like the soup? - Yes, it's delicious!
How has your day been?