French Demonstrative Pronouns – When To Use Which

French is a beautiful language; from the intonation, to the flow of sentences, to the rolled rs. But if you’re not a native speaker, you may find certain rules of the language difficult to comprehend or remember. For example, in French, there can be no imprecision. What I mean is that essentially, everything must be accounted for and there should be no ambiguity in sentence structure. Still confused? I was, too, when I first began studying. But if you take a closer look, it’s not as confusing as you may think. In fact, as far as pronouns go, there are a number of different demonstrative pronouns to be used for varying occasions. I realize that probably doesn’t help at all. Which is why, for my own sake and now, hopefully, for yours, I’ve taken the liberty to give a rundown of each demonstrative pronoun. The following is a list of each, including their translations and uses.

The word ce is a pronoun meaning ‘this’ or ‘it.’ Most commonly, it’s used before the verb être, meaning to be, in the contraction c’est (this/it is). But it can stand alone.

Ce cheval mange. (This horse is eating.)

C’est bon. (This is good.)

Cet homme est grand. (This man is tall.)

Did you catch what I did there? That last one isn’t ce, but cet. But it shares the same meaning of ‘this/that.’ The difference is that ce is placed before a singular, masculine noun that begins with a consonant. And though homme begins with a consonant, hs are not pronounced in French, and therefore a t must be added to the end of ce, so that it flows better. (The same applies before words beginning with vowels.)

On the other hand, if the noun is singular but feminine, the pronoun becomes cette.

Cette femme boit. (This woman is drinking.)

Cette pomme est rouge. (That apple is red.)

Cette maison est large. (This house is large.)

Despite the gender, if the noun that follows is plural, the pronoun becomes ces, to mean these/those.

Ces rues sont longues. (These streets are long.)

Ces oranges sont bleues. (These oranges are blue.)

Ces garçons boivent du lait. (These boys are drinking milk.)

Now that we’ve covered what comes before a noun, what happens if the noun is unspecified? Ceci and cela become both direct and indirect objects in this case (providing the verb être is absent immediately afterward).

To refer to something close by, you’d use ceci. The word ici means here, and we’ve already discussed that ce means this. So essentially, this is a contraction of ce + ici, to mean this (thing) here. 

Conversely, to refer to something a little farther away, the pronoun cela* is used. The word means there, and so again this is a contraction, combining ce + là (and dropping the accent), to mean that (thing) there.

Ceci peut être difficile. (This could be difficult.)

S’il vous plait, donnez-moi cela. (Please, give me that.)

*Note that cela can also be used to mean this as opposed to strictly that. The French prefer to use cela most often, in fact, especially verbally. Ceci is rarely used unless specifically to distinguish between ‘this’ and ‘that.’

It’s better to be more specific when speaking formally. But if you’re more familiar with your listener (or reader if you’re writing in French), ça is the informal replacement for both ceci and cela, and can also mean it.

Il n’y a rien comme ça. (There is nothing like it.)

Je ne veux pas ça, je veux ça. (I don’t want this, I want that.)

Next, let’s take a look at pronoun usage when making a comparison.

If you want to reference this/that one, you’d need to use celui or celle. In French, demonstrative pronouns must agree in gender and number with what they’re referring to. Therefore, celui refers to something previously mentioned that’s masculine and singular, and celle to something that’s feminine and singular.

Quelle cravate veux-tu porter, celle-ci ou celle-là? (Which tie do you want to wear, this one or that one?)

You’ll notice that I added the suffixes –ci and – to the end of celle. This is because celle and celui cannot stand alone, and adding a suffix is one of a few ways to make the sentence grammatically correct. Again, adding –ci (here) references something a little closer, while adding – (there) references something a little farther.

Celui and celle may also be followed by de (of), which is used to show origin or possession, and eliminates the need for a suffix.

Dont le bateau est-ce? Il est celui de mon grand-père. (Whose boat is this? It is my grandfather’s.)

In the above construction, the second sentence literally translates to it is the one of my grandfather. In this case, celui (and celle if I’d used a feminine noun) means the one (of).

The same rules apply for plural nouns as well. The plural counterpart to celui is ceux, and the plural counterpart to celle is celles. Easy enough, right?

Quelles robes veux-tu acheter, celles-ci ou celles-là? (Which dresses do you want to buy, these ones or those ones?)

Ces manteaux sont ceux de mon fils. (These coats are my son’s.)

To wrap things up, let’s summarize:

Ce this (before noun)

Cecithis/that (no noun necessary)

Cela = this/that (no noun necessary)

Ça this/that/it (informal replacement of ceci/cela)

Celuithis one/that one/the one (masculine, singular)

Celle this one/that one/the one (feminine, singular)

Ceuxthese ones/those ones/the ones (masculine, plural)

Cellesthese ones/those ones/the ones (feminine, plural)

I understand this can be a lot to take in and memorize. It certainly was for me in the beginning and still proves to be sometimes. But the more you study, and the more frequently you put these pronouns to use, the easier it will become to remember when to use which one.

I hope you’ve found this informative and/or helpful! Questions? Feel free to ask away in the comments and I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Comments/concerns? Please, by all means, don’t hesitate to leave those in the comments as well. Is any of this information incorrect? I’d love to know; I’m a native English speaker who’s merely on the road to French fluency. I’m still learning and want to pass on what I know, but of course I want to be as accurate as possible. 🙂