One of the very first phrases people learn in French is something like:
Comment ça va ? / Ça va ? / Ça va bien ? (How are you?)
Few people suspect that the little word ça (not to be confused with sa) is one of the most important words in the French language and is heard in nearly every conversation. If you want to speak French well, you have to know how to use ça.
Ça is called a pronoun because it stands in for other nouns. This is the key point. Ça has no meaning in itself, it refers to something else. This something else can be very specific or quite vague. Thus ça can mean very many things. This is why I call it an awesome pronoun.
Ça is technically an abbreviation of cela. They are interchangeable in certain situations, as I’ll point out. But in fact most of the time they are not interchangeable at all. Ça is by far more common and has a life of its own. For instance, in the examples above, one would not say “Comment cela va ?” I’ll look at cela in detail in a subsequent post.
Cela and ça are loosely translated by the English “that, this, it, things.” I should also point out that there is a third closely related pronoun, ceci, “this thing” that is not as common as cela and ça.
When to use the pronoun ça
Here is probably the number one usage of ça:
1. C’est ça (This is it, this is true, this is correct.)
I believe this is the number one sentence in the French language. It works really well as a conversation filler. If you have nothing to say, just say, “c’est ça.” You could say “c’est cela” but it sounds very formal and pretentious.
Intonation is very important. If you’re playing a game and you want to say excitedly, “That’s it!” you would have to use a loud rising tone. Or if you want to sound matter-of-fact you would use more of a flat intonation.
Here are some variants:
C’est bien ça.
C’est en plein ça. (au Québec)
Here is my favourite variant from Quebec that you use to make some kind of definitive assessment of a situation:
Voilà, c’est ça qui est ça. (Well, that takes care of that.)
2. Tout ça (all that)
This is a very common uses of ça. It can come at the end of phrase, typically et tout ça (and all that) or at the beginning as a subject, as in:
Tout ça n’est qu’un début. (This is only a beginning.)
3. Ça as a verb subject
This one of the most common uses. Here are some examples:
Il n’en est pas question. Ça ne m’intéresse pas. (There’s no question. I’m not the least interested.)
En quoi ça consiste ? (What is it made up of?)
Ça se passe comment? (How are things going?)
Bravo, ça commence bien. (Congratulations, it’s off to a good start.)
Vous me dites que ça ça vaut 1000 euros / dollars. (You’re saying to me that this thing is worth 1000 euros / dollars.)
Bien sûr, ça demande des sous. (Of course, this requires money.)
Est-ce que ça marche ? (Does it work?)
Ça y est, c’est fait. (There you go, it’s done.)
Ça fait longtemps qu’on ne l’a pas vu. (It’s been a while since we last saw him.)
Ça fait plus de tort que de bien. (It’s doing more harm than good.)
Ça fait vingt ans de ça. (It’s been twenty years ago.)
Ça ne vaut rien. (It’s worthless.)
Ça ne court pas les rues. (It doesn’t come easily.)
4. Ça as an object
Here are some common examples:
J’aime ça / j’adore ça. (I love it)
J’aime ça, la neige. (I love snow)
Je trouve ça intéressant. (I find it interesting.)
On peut dire ça. (One could say that.)
Oh les enfants, on ne fait pas ça. (Hey kids, don’t do that.)
Je ne veux pas ça. (I don’t want that.)
5. Ça with prepositions
Here are some examples:
La suite de ça, c’est quoi ? (What happens after that ?)
C’est pour ça qu’on vient vous voir. (That’s why we’ve come to see you.)
Je suis là pour ça. (That’s why I’m here.)
Comme ça ! (Like that!)
C’est comme ça. (That’s the way it is.)
On va le faire comme ça. (We’ll do it this way.)
Comme ça, tu n’as rien fait. (So, you did nothing.)
Ce n’est pas si simple que ça. (It’s not as simple as that.)
Rien que ça. (Just that.)
Tout ça pour ça. (All that fuss just for this.)
Et avec ça ? (Will that be all?)
6. Ça with question words
Ça can be used to ask a question, as in these dialogues:
– Je te dois des excuses. – Comment ça ? (- I owe you an apology. – How so?)
– As-tu vu l’accident? – Où ça ? (- Did you see the accident? – Where ?)
– Connaissez-vous ce monsieur? – Qui ça ? (- Do you know this gentleman? – What gentleman?)
– Venez-vous avec nous ? – Quand ça ? (- Are you coming with us? – When?)
Incorporating French pronoun ça into your speech
As you can see, ça is extremely versatile. You will hear it everywhere. You will find lots of uses for it. I do caution you however about overdoing it. To get and idea how ça can be be commonly used, here is a quote from a boxer talking about his defeat :
« Ç‘a été la pire soirée que je (ne) pouvais avoir. C’est une défaite très dure pour moi, mais ça fait partie de la boxe. Je n’étais pas préparé à ça. Ça n’a pas marché comme je le voulais et je me suis fait dominer. Il m’a frappé fort. »
It was the worst evening that I could have had. This is a rough defeat for me, but that’s boxing. I wasn’t prepared for this. Things didn’t go as I wanted and I was overwhelmed. He hit me hard.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.