Cleft sentence

Cleft sentence

A cleft sentence is a complex sentence (one having a main clause and a dependent clause) that has a meaning that could be expressed by a simple sentence. Clefts typically put a particular constituent into focus. This focusing is often accompanied by a special intonation.

In English, a cleft sentence can be constructed as follows:

it + conjugated form of to be + X + subordinate clause

where it is a cleft pronoun and X is usually a noun phrase (although it can also be a prepositional phrase, and in some cases an adjectival or adverbial phrase). The focus is on X, or else on the subordinate clause or some element of it. For example:

  • It's Joey (who) we're looking for.
  • It's money that I love.
  • It was from John that she heard the news.
  • It was meeting Jim that really started me off on this new line of work.



English is very rich in cleft constructions. Below are examples of other types of clefts found in English, though the list is not exhaustive (see Lambrecht 2001 for a comprehensive survey, Collins 1991 for an in-depth analysis of it-clefts and wh-clefts in English, and Calude 2009 for an investigation of clefts in spoken English).

  • It-cleft: It is Jaime for whom we are looking.
  • Wh-cleft: What he wanted to buy was a Fiat.
  • Reversed wh-cleft/Pseudo-cleft: A Fiat is what he wanted to buy.
  • All-cleft: All he wanted to buy was a Fiat.
  • Inferential cleft It is not that he loves her. It's just that he has a way with her that is different.
  • There-cleft: And then there's a new house he wanted to build.
  • If-because cleft: If he wants to be an actor it's because he wants to be famous.

Unfortunately, traditional accounts of cleft structures classify these according to the elements involved following English-centric analyses (such as wh-words, the pronoun it, the quantifier all, and so on). This makes it difficult to conduct cross-linguistic investigations of clefts since these elements do not exist in other languages, which has led to a proposal for a revision of existing cleft taxonomy (see Calude 2009).

However, not all languages are so rich in cleft types as English, and some employ other means for focusing specific constituents, such as topicalization, word order changes, focusing particles and so on (see Miller 1996). Cleftability in Language (2009) by Cheng Luo presents a cross-linguistic discussion of cleftability.

Structural issues

The role of the cleft pronoun (it in the case of English) is controversial, and some believe it to be referential,[1] while others treat it as a dummy pronoun or empty element.[2] The former analysis has come to be termed the "expletive" view, whereas the latter is referred to as the "extraposition" approach. Hedberg (2002) proposes a hybrid approach, combining ideas from both takes on the status of the cleft pronoun. She shows that it can have a range of scopes (from semantically void to full reference) depending on the context in which it is used.

Similarly controversial is the status of the subordinate clause, often termed the "cleft clause". While most would agree that the cleft clause in wh-clefts can be analysed as some kind of relative clause (free or fused or headless), there is disagreement as to the exact nature of the relative. Traditionally, the wh-word in a cleft like What you need is a good holiday, pertaining to the relative What you need is understood to be the first constituent of the relative clause, and function as its head.

Bresnan and Grimshaw (1987) posit a different analysis. They suggest that the relative clause is headed (rather than headless), with wh-word being located outside the clause proper and functioning as its head. Miller (1996) also endorses this approach, citing cross-linguistic evidence that the wh-word function as indefinite deictics.

The cleft clause debate gets more complex with it-clefts, where researchers struggle to even agree as to the type of clause that is involved: the traditionalists claim it to be a relative clause (Huddleston and Pullum 2002), while others reject this on the basis of a lack of noun phrase antecedent(Quirk et al. 1985, Sornicola 1988, Miller 1999), as exemplified below:

  • It was because he was ill (that) we decided to return.
  • It was in September that he first found out about it.
  • It was with great reluctance that Maria accepted the invitation.

Finally, the last element of a cleft is the cleft constituent. As mentioned earlier, the focused part of a cleft is typically a noun phrase, but may in fact, turn up to be just about anything[3]:

  • Prepositional phrase: It was by foot that he went there.
  • Adverbial phrase: It was greedily and speedily that Homer Simpson drank his beer.
  • Non-finite clause: It is to address a far-reaching problem that Oxfam is setting out to do.
  • Gerund: It could be going home early or slacking off work that the boss reacted to.
  • Adverbial clause: It was because she was so lonely all the time that drove her to move out.

Information structure

Clefts have been described as "equative" (Halliday 1976), "stative" (Delin and Oberlander 1995) and as "variable-value pairs", where the cleft constituent gives a variable expressed by the cleft clause (Herriman 2004, Declerck 1994, Halliday 1994). A major area of interest with regard to cleft constructions involves their information structure. The concept of "information structure" relates to the type of information encoded in a particular utterance, that can be one of these three:

  • NEW information: things that the speaker/writer expects their hearer/reader might not already know
  • GIVEN information: information that the speaker/writer expects the hearer/reader may be familiar with
  • INFERRABLE information: information that the speaker/writer may expect the hearer/reader to be able to infer either from world knowledge, or from previous discourse

The reason why information structure plays such an important role in the area of clefts is largely due to the fact that the organisation of information structure is tightly linked to the clefts' function as focusing tools used by speakers/writers to draw attention to salient parts of their message.

While it may be reasonable to assume that the variable of a cleft (that is, the material encoded by cleft clauses) may be typically GIVEN and its value (expressed by the cleft constituent) is NEW, it is not always so. Sometimes, neither element contains new information, as is in some demonstrative clefts, e.g., That is what I think and sometimes it is the cleft clause that contains the NEW part of the message, as in And that's when I got sick (Calude 2009). Finally, in some constructions, it is the equation between cleft clause and cleft constituent that brings about the newsworthy information, rather than any of the elements of the cleft themselves (Lambrecht 2001).

Other languages


Without the capacity for stressed words based merely on pitch or on volume of articulation,[citation needed] structures of this kind are required in order to stress a certain element:

  • "C'est Jean que je cherche" (It's Jean whom I'm looking for)
  • "C'est à Paris que je vis" (It's in Paris where I live)


  • "Das ist genau, was ich dachte" (That is exactly what I thought.)
  • "Spanien ist nicht, wohin ich gehen wollte" (Spain is not where I wanted to go.)

Scottish Gaelic

The construction is quite frequent in Scottish Gaelic, more than in English, but this sometimes carries over into Highland English, Lowland Scots and Scottish English.

  • "Se Iain a tha thu a' lorg" (It is Iain/John whom you are seeking)
  • "Se latha breagha a tha ann an diugh" (It is a beautiful day that we are having today, literally "it is a beautiful day that is in it today")


Cleft sentences are copula constructions in which the focused element serves as the predicate of the sentence.

(1) Ang babae ang bumili ng bahay.
nom woman nom act.bought acc house
"The (one who) bought the house was the woman."
(2) Si Juan ang binigyan ni Pedro ng pera.
nom Juan nom gave.psv gen Pedro acc money
"The (one to whom) Pedro had given money was Juan."
(or: "The (one who) was given money to by Pedro was Juan.")

In the examples in (1) and (2), the foci are in bold. The remaining portions of the cleft sentences in (1) and (2) are noun phrases that contain headless relative clauses. (NB: Tagalog does not have an overt copula.)

This construction is also used for WH-questions in Tagalog, when the WH-word used in the question is either sino "who" or ano "what" , as illustrated in (3) and (4).

(3) Sino ang bumili ng bahay?
who.nom nom act.bought acc house
"Who bought the house?"
(or: "Who was the (one who) bought the house?")
(4) Ano ang ibinigay ni Pedro kay Juan?
what nom psv.gave gen Pedro dat Juan
"What did Pedro give to Juan?"
(or: "What was the (thing that) was given to Juan by Pedro?")


  1. ^ Akmajian 1970, Bolinger 1972, Edmonds 1976, Gundel 1977 and Borkin 1984
  2. ^ Chomsky 1977, Delin 1989, Delahunty 1982, Heggie 1988, Kiss 1998, Lambrecht 2001
  3. ^ Huddleston and Pullum 2001 provide a comprehensive survey
  • Akmajian, A. 1970. On deriving cleft sentences from pseudo-cleft sentences. Linguistic Inquiry, 1(149-168).
  • Bolinger, D. 1972. A Look at Equations and Cleft Sentences. In Firchow, E., editor, Studies for Einar Haugen, pages 96–114. Mouton de Gruyter, The Hague.
  • Borkin, A. 1984. Problems in Form and Function. Ablex, Norwood, NJ.
  • Bresnan, J. and Grimshaw, J. (1978). The Syntax of Free Relatives in English. Linguistic Inquiry, 9:331–391.
  • Calude, Andreea S. 2009. Cleft Constructions in Spoken English. VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, Saarbrücken.
  • Chomsky, N. 1977. On wh-movement. In Culicover, P., Wasow, T., and Akmajian, A., editors, Formal Syntax, pages 71–132. Academic Press, New York.
  • Collins, P. 1991. Cleft and pseudo-cleft constructions in English. Routledge, London.
  • Declerk, R. 1994. The taxonomy and interpretation of clefts and pseudoclefts. Lingua, 9(1):183–220.
  • Delahunty, G.P. 1982. Topics in the syntax and semantics of English cleft sentences. Indiana University Linguistics Club, Bloomington.
  • Delin, J. 1989. Cleft constructions in discourse. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Edinburgh.
  • Delin, J. and Oberlander, J. 1995. Syntactic constraints on discourse structure: the case of it-clefts. Linguistics, 33:456–500.
  • Emonds, J. 1976. A Transformational Approach to English Syntax. Academic Press, New York.
  • Finegan, Edward. 2004. Language: Its Structure and Use. 4th ed. Boston etc. Thompson. p. 260-277.
  • Gundel, J. 1977. Where do clefts sentences come from? Language, 53:542–559.
  • Halliday, M.A.K. 1994. An introduction to functional grammar. Arnold, London, 2nd Edition.
  • Halliday, M.A.K. 1976. Some aspects of the thematic organization of the English clause. In Kress, G., editor, System and Function in Language, pages 174–188. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hedberg, N. 2000. The referential status of clefts. Language, 76(4):891–920.
  • Heggie, L. 1988. The Syntax of Copular Structures. Doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California.
  • Herriman, J. 2004. Identifying relations: the semantic functions of wh-clefts in English. Text, 24(4):447–469.
  • Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. 2002. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, New York.
  • Kiss, K. 1998. Identificational focus versus information focus. Language, 74(2):245–273.
  • Lambrecht, Knud. 2001. A framework for the analysis of cleft constructions. Linguistics, 39(3):463-516.
  • Luo, C. 2009. Cleftability in Language. Wuhan University Press, China.
  • Miller, J. 1999. Magnasyntax and syntactic analysis. Revue française de linguistique appliquée, IV(2):7–20.
  • Miller, J. 1996. Clefts, particles and word order in languages of Europe. Language Sciences, 18(1-2):111–125.
  • Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., and Svartvik, J. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. Longman, London, New York.
  • Sornicola, R. 1988. It -clefts and Wh-clefts: two awkward sentence types. Linguistics, 24:343–379.

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