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Concourse 2

Cleft sentences

avocado

A cleft sentence is a complex sentence ... that has a meaning that could be expressed by a simple sentence.
wikipedia.org (n.d)

If that is true, you may be forgiven for asking why the idea is not expressed in a simpler way.

think

Task 1: What do you understand to be the difference, for example between:
    I enjoyed the music most
and
    It was the music I enjoyed most?
Click here when you have an answer to that.


cogs

What do cleft sentences do?

Clefts function to give prominence to a particular part of a clause.  They do this by dividing the clause into two parts (hence the name) and assigning a verb to each noun phrase.  This is a way, in English, of marking, i.e., distinguishing, a proposition.  For more on markedness in English, see the guide linked in the list of related guides at the end.

We can, for example, take the simple sentence:
    Mary took her mother to a restaurant last night
and emphasise whichever part of the sentence we feel is important by making cleft sentences, like this:

emphasising the subject
It was Mary who took her mother to a restaurant last night
emphasising the direct object
It was her mother that Mary took to a restaurant last night
emphasising the adverbial of time
It was last night that Mary took her mother to a restaurant
emphasising the adverbial of place
It was to a restaurant that Mary took her mother last night

All four sentences above are examples of what is called, for a fairly obvious reason, an it-cleft.  They all begin with a dummy, anticipatory or empty it pronoun and use the verb be to make the clause.  In this way, two clauses have been produced from the single-clause sentence with which we started.

If the subject or the object of the sentence is emphasised we can use who or whom as the relative pronoun although that will often be used as the pro-form for all noun phrases.  We can, therefore have:
    It was her mother who(m) Mary took to a restaurant last night
or
    It was her mother that Mary took to a restaurant last night
and
    It was Mary who took her mother to a restaurant last night
and
    It was Mary that took her mother to a restaurant last night
When the fronted item contains the object of the verb, in formal English, whom not who must be used.  Informally, the distinction is disappearing.

If you try saying those sentences aloud, you will notice that the stress falls on the emphasised item quite naturally: Mary, mother, last night, to a restaurant, respectively.
Part of the usefulness of cleft sentences is that they allow us to emphasise a particular element in the sentences in writing as well as in speech.
The hearer or reader is instantly aware that the writer or speaker has marked part of the sentence for the effect that needed to be communicated.

alone

Emphasising adverbials

It was alone that she walked  

In the example above, the adverbial of time is emphasised but other adverbial expressions are also possible in this structure so we can have, for example:

emphasising the causal adverbial subordinate clause
It was because I needed the money that I went to the bank
emphasising the locational adjunct adverbial
It was on the other side of the river that the house stood
emphasising an adverbial of manner
It was in confidence that she told you that
emphasising a viewpoint adjunct adverbial
It was only economically that this was an important issue
emphasising a process adjunct
It was on horseback that he came
emphasising a limiter adjunct
It was primarily that I wanted an answer

However, some adverbial adjuncts resist inclusion in cleft structures so we do not usually find:

emphasised intensifiers
*It was really that I didn't like the food
emphasised focusing adverbial adjuncts
*It was chiefly that she came to say hello
emphasised sequencers
*It was secondly that I wanted to the question
emphasised subject adverbials
*It was stupidly I forgot my keys

Disjunct adverbials (either of style or attitude) and conjuncts also resist inclusion in any cleft structures so we do not find:
    *It is frankly that I'm not sure
    *It is arguably that that is the wrong answer
    *It is alternatively that I will do it myself
    *It is moreover that it is too costly
    *It is likewise that I enjoyed the play
    *It is otherwise that we must go to London ourselves

crime

Other restrictions

In addition to the restrictions concerning the types of adverbials that can be the marked item, cleft sentences proper, like these, have important restrictions:

?

Cleft negatives and interrogatives

In the foregoing and what follows, we will be focused on declarative cleft sentence forms for simplicity's sake but it should not be forgotten that we can also form:

negative sentences
It wasn't Mary who / that took her mother to a restaurant last night
It wasn't her mother who / whom /that Mary took to a restaurant last night
It wasn't last night that Mary took her mother to a restaurant
It wasn't to a restaurant that Mary took her mother last night
interrogative sentences
Was it Mary who took her mother to a restaurant last night?
Was it her mother that Mary took to a restaurant last night?
Was it last night that Mary took her mother to a restaurant?
Was it to a restaurant that Mary took her mother last night?

The formation of cleft questions allows the speaker / writer of the language to avoid the ambiguity of some yes-no questions, incidentally, as is explained below.

4

Four alternatives in cleft sentences

  1. It is possible to use modal auxiliary verbs in cleft sentences so we can have, for example:
        It might have been Mary who took her mother to a restaurant last night
        It must have been her mother that Mary took to a restaurant last night
        It can't have been last night that Mary took her mother to a restaurant
        It could have been to a restaurant that Mary took her mother last night
  2. Cleft sentences may be used to emphasise the indirect object of the clause as in, for example:
        It was John Mary gave the book
    but in these cases, it is more common to prefer:
        It was John Mary gave the book to
    or
        It was to John Mary gave the book

    with John functioning as the complement of the preposition, to, rather than standing alone as the indirect object.  This is an example of when the dative shift is the more natural form to select.
  3. It is possible to leave out the relative pronouns in the same way that they can be omitted from restricted or defining relative clauses.  For example:
        It was her mother Mary took to a restaurant last night
        It was last night Mary took her mother to a restaurant
        It was to a restaurant Mary took her mother last night

    but, as with relative clauses, we cannot omit the subject pronoun:
        *It was Mary took her mother to a restaurant last night.
  4. Although the dummy pronoun, it, is the most frequent way to introduce cleft sentences, there are alternatives using the demonstrative pronouns that and those (but not this and these) as in, for example:
        Those were my letters that the postman delivered
        That was her mother that she took to a restaurant

There are a number of ways to make cleft sentences, pseudo- or otherwise, in order to focus on a particular item.  Seven, in fact, and we'll exemplify them all.


four

4 main types of clefts

There are four sorts to consider first.

it-cleft
In most analyses, these sorts of sentences are the only true cleft sentences and the others which follow are better described as pseudo-cleft sentences.  That is probably a distinction which does not need to be the subject of a great deal of teaching time.
These are exemplified above and work like this:
    She enjoyed the hotel most
It was the hotel she enjoyed most
It is possible, as we saw above, to emphasise various parts of sentences with It-clefts.
It is also possible, but slightly rarer, to use that or those instead of it as in, e.g.:
    She enjoyed that hotel most That was the hotel she enjoyed most
A form of it-cleft sentences, not exemplified above, is one which contains a subordinate clause rather than a subject noun which the speaker / writer wants to mark.  It appears, for example in:
    I went to the bank because he wanted his money It was because he wanted his money that I went to the bank
Here the reference is not to a subject or object noun but to the adjunct, subordinate clause because he wanted his money.
Other adjunct adverbials, whether adverbs or prepositional phrases, can be similarly marked as in, for example:
    I worked on it at the weekend It was at the weekend that I worked on it
    I sat outside It was outside that I sat
    She responded enthusiastically It was enthusiastically that she responded
    She left at 9 It was at 9 that she left
There are those who would argue, with some reason, that forming cleft sentences to emphasise an adverb of manner or degree is rare or even wrong so sentences such as:
    ?It was hard that he was thinking
    ?It was frequently that she argued
    ?It was enormously that he enjoyed the party
are all, at the very best, questionable.  Many would reject them out of hand.
They are certainly worth avoiding for teaching purposes.
Even adverbs of time are sometimes questionably used in cleft sentences so while most would accept
    It was early in the morning when he arrived
which uses an adverbial prepositional phrase, the use of a simple adverb is less acceptable so, many would reject:
    ?It was early that he arrived
We saw above that it-clefts can be formed in both negative and interrogative sentences.
wh-cleft
These are usually referred to as pseudo-cleft sentences.  They allow the emphasis to fall on the verb phrase and it-clefts, as we saw, do not permit that usually.
    She enjoyed the hotel most
What she enjoyed most was the hotel
When a wh-cleft is used to emphasise the verb, the tense structure remains unaltered across the sentence so we can also have, for example:
    She has ruined the party What she has done is ruined the party
or
    She is ruining the party What she is doing is ruining the party
    We can use other wh-words (who(m), where, when, why, how) to make these so it is possible to have, e.g.,
    She liked the clowns most Who(m) she liked most were the clowns
    She most enjoyed going to the beach Where she enjoyed going most was to the beach
    She enjoyed taking a holiday in winter most When she enjoyed taking a holiday most was in winter
    She took a holiday to get away from work Why she took a holiday was to get away from work
    She paid for her holiday with a credit card How she paid for her holiday was with a credit card
although it is certainly arguable that the use of why and how produces clumsy expression.
We cannot use whose in this kind of cleft so, for example
    *Whose credit card was stolen was Mary's
is not acceptable.
To use whose, we need to resort to an it-cleft and even then the outcome is often rather clumsy but we can have, for example:
    It was Mary whose credit card was stolen
It is possible to form both negative and interrogative wh-clefts such as:
    What Mary enjoyed most wasn't the hotel
    Whom Mary liked most weren't the clowns
    Was the hotel what Mary enjoyed most?
    Were the clowns whom she liked most?

and so on.
Reversed wh-cleft
The clue is in the name.  To make a sentence like this we reverse the position of the wh-word and the object of the verb.
    She enjoyed the hotel most
The hotel was what she enjoyed most
As we saw above, we can use other wh-words (who(m), where, when, why, how) to make these sorts of clefts:
    She liked the clowns most
The clowns were who(m) she liked most
    She enjoyed going to the beach The beach is where she enjoyed going most
    She enjoyed taking a holiday in winter most In winter was when she enjoyed taking a holiday most
    She took a holiday to get away from work To get away from work was why she took a holiday
    She paid for her holiday with a credit card With a credit card was how she paid for her holiday
although, again, it is certainly arguable that the use of why, and how produces clumsy expression.
And, again, the use of whose in such pseudo-cleft sentences is not available and an it-cleft is the only alternative.
It is again possible to form both negative and interrogative reversed wh-clefts such as:
    The hotel wasn't what Mary enjoyed most
    The clowns weren't whom Mary liked most
    Was what Mary enjoyed most the hotel?
    Were whom she liked most the clowns?

but, as we see with the last example, the outcome is often rather clumsy.
all-cleft
These are quite simple and exclude all other possibilities connected to the verb.  All-clefts emphasise the object of the verb, whether that is a noun phrase or a nominalised clause.
    She enjoyed the hotel
All she enjoyed was the hotel
and this implies that she enjoyed nothing except the hotel.
    She said she wanted to go All she said was that she wanted to go
and this implies that she said nothing else.
It is possible to form interrogative all-clefts such as:
    Was all she enjoyed the hotel?
    Was all she said that she wanted to go?
but negatives sentences are very rare:
    All she enjoyed wasn't the hotel
    All she enjoyed wasn't the clowns
even when they are theoretically allowed.
write

Task 2: Look carefully at the examples above and see if you can make the four main types of cleft sentences from this example:
Example: I'm trying to help the poor man
Click here when you have done that.


3

3 other types of clefts

That was quite easy to do but there are some other sorts of clefts that are harder to form but which are nevertheless quite common.  Here they are:

Inferential cleft
I'm trying to help the poor man It's not that I'm not trying to help the poor man.  It just looks that way.
And we have:
Well it's not because
I'm an early riser
I didn't go to sleep last night

(Bob Dylan, Walkin' Down the Line, 1963)
Function: An inferential cleft serves to discount what others may be wrongly assuming.
there-cleft
I'm trying to help the poor man There's this poor man I'm trying to help
Function: A there-cleft marks the existence of something for emphasis and often performs a similar function to an it-cleft.
if-because cleft
I'm trying to help the poor man If it looks like I'm interfering, it's because I'm trying to help the poor man
Although if-because clefts contain the conjunction if which is normally associated with conditional forms, this is not a conditional form.
Function: These clefts serve a similar purpose to inferential clefts, making it clear that an assumption that might be being made is not valid.

Although it is in principle possible to make both negative and interrogative constructions from there- and if-because clefts, the outcomes are almost always very questionable when they are acceptable at all.  Inferential clefts are the exception insofar as they are normally negative for semantic reasons as we saw above.

test

Task 3: Before we go on, click here for a short test to make sure you can identify all seven types.



summary

Summary

Here's a summary of the story so far (slightly incomplete).
You may need to keep it in mind in what follows and for planning purposes.

summary


stress

Stress and meaning


write

Task 4: Now try making all seven types of cleft sentences with this example:
    We expected a refund
Click here to go on when you have made the sentences and considered these questions:

  1. How do we stress the sentences you make?
  2. Why?

ambiguity

Disambiguation

An important motivation for the use of a cleft sentence form, especially in questions, is the opportunity to make clear what might otherwise be an ambiguous interrogative.

Nearly all yes-no questions are, by their nature ambiguous in terms of what they are asking.  Really simple questions such as:
    Is John here?
are not ambiguous because the direction of the question can only be John's presence or absence.  There is no motivation, unless the speaker / writer wants to mark particular emphasis to form the question as a cleft and have:
    Is it John who is here?
and that form is, accordingly, quite rare.
However, a question such as:
    Did you drive the car to Scotland last week?
could be directed as:
    Was it you who drove the car to Scotland last week?
    Was it last week you drove the car to Scotland?
    Was it the car you drove to Scotland last week?
    What did you do with the car last week?

and only the co-text and context can disambiguate this in writing although sentence stress can make the sense clear in spoken language.  In writing and frequently in speech, therefore, users of the language will often form a cleft sentence to make the thrust of the question clear.
As we saw above, however, the verb cannot be the focus of a cleft sentence form so the last question is still open to some alternative interpretations which may have nothing to do with driving or Scotland.


languages

Other languages

Cleft sentences (or the meanings they encode) are handled very differently indeed in other languages so you need to have some idea of what your learners' first language(s) do before setting out to teach the forms.
In particular:

In all cases, however, the basic communicative thrust of any parallel structures remains the same: markedness.


teaching

What to consider when teaching cleft structures

Comprehension comes first.  Cleft sentences are, despite their structural complexity, very common in speech and writing.  The first stage of any teaching is often, therefore, to expose learners to authentic examples of clefts in action and focus them on unpacking meaning and understanding the intentions of the producer of the forms in terms of emphasis or marking.
Here are some authentic examples:

It is not difficult to find many more examples via an internet search engine.

One way to alert learners to the meaning of cleft sentences is to ask them to compare the cleft and non-cleft versions of the same thought and get them to see what the speaker / writer had in mind when forming the cleft version.  For example, both:
    I wanted to tell him the good news
and
    It was the good news that I wanted to tell him
appear to mean the same but the writer / speaker has deliberately marked the good news as the important direct object.
We could also have:
    It was him that I wanted to tell the good news
and the speaker has chosen, in this case, to mark the indirect object.
It is not too difficult to make up similar pairs or groups of sentences emphasising (i.e., marking) various aspects of the sentence.
Like this:

Which part of the sentence is emphasised?
John sold Mary the car no special emphasis
It was John who sold Mary the car emphasising __________
It was the car that John sold Mary emphasising __________
It was Mary that John sold the car to emphasising __________

The next obvious step, focusing both on form and communicative function is to ask the learners to devise such a table from a different initial sentence, such as:
    Mary took the children to the zoo last Thursday
which allows for at least 4 cleft sentences to be formed marking each phrase in the sentence.
A more challenging exercise is to ask learners to speak a normally ordered sentence emphasising one part of it, such as, e.g.:
    John decided to take Mary to the party
    John decided to take Mary to the party
    John decided to take Mary to the party
and get a partner to form the three possible it-cleft sentences from that.

The same approach may be taken with wh-pseudo-cleft sentences starting with, e.g.:
    I wanted a new overcoat for my birthday
and getting the learners to come up with a reason why someone might prefer to say:
    What I wanted for my birthday was a new coat

When learners can successfully unpack the meaning of a cleft such as that one, it is time to get them to do the conversion from, e.g.:
    She wore a new dress to the party
to
    What she wore to the party was a new dress
That's not very easy to do and learners need a bit of practice.

There are some other simple issues to consider when teaching in this area:

  1. Level: these are complex sentences which exhibit unusual word order in some cases and may well confuse learners at lower levels.  Handle with care.
  2. Focus: This guide has described seven forms of cleft and pseudo-cleft sentences which all exhibit different structural characteristics.  It would be foolhardy to focus on more than one or two at a time.  That way madness lies.
  3. Structure: the structures are usually quite similar: What / It / Who etc. + to be + the noun phrase but it can be another type of phrase in something like
        It was over the bridge that he fell
    It takes a little practice to get the structure right.
  4. Intonation and sentence stress: are crucial to understanding and producing clefts.  Make sure they form part of the core of the teaching.
  5. Speaker / writer intention is also crucial.  We use the structures because we are concerned to make a message very clear in terms of what we, the speakers / writers, consider important.  You need to concept check and embed the language in absolutely clear contexts or the learners will just be manipulating the language for no communicative purpose.


Related guides
the word order map for links to other guides in this area
fronting for a guide to a closely connected area
markedness for a guide to how item may be distinguished in ways other than cleft sentences
circumstances analysing prepositional and adverbial phrases somewhat differently
relative pronoun clauses for the guide to a related area
coordination which all consider the ordering of clauses
subordination
conjunctions
postponement and extrapositioning which explains how items can be moved to the end of a clause or sentence for effect


If you would like to look at an exercise for learners on cleft sentences and perhaps use it as part of a lesson in this area you can access it here.