Cleft Sentences

Shift emphasis by grouping and moving content

Jackson dancing
 

 

Basic vs. Cleft Clause

BASIC CLAUSE

In a basic sentence, no particular emphasis is expressed. Clefting (splitting) a clause is a means of repackaging information so that emphasis can be placed elsewhere in the clause.

SUBJECT VERB OBJECT

Michael Jackson

wanted

success.

     
     
CLEFT (SPLIT) CLAUSE

A what-cleft is used to create a kind of relative clause "package" which isolates content so that emphasis can be placed elsewhere in the clause. The emphasized content is joined to the de-emphasized content with be.

DE-EMPHASIZED BE EMPHASIZED

What he wanted
(clause package)

was    

success
(former subject)

EMPHASIS   DE-EMPHASIZED

Success

 

was

 

what he wanted.
(clause package)

 

what = that which   that (pron.) + which (relative pron.)  that which / the thing that / the part that / the element that

"We can emphasize particular words and expressions by putting everything into a kind of relative clause except the words we want to emphasize: this makes them stand out." The words to be emphasized are joined to the relative clause by is or was.(Swan 130)

Resources – (Huddleston 16 §9.1-3) (Biber   11.6.2) (Swan 130)

Related pages  That-Subject Clauses, What-Subject Clauses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What–clause

Emphasizing & weighting

 

 

 

Creating emphasis or weighting content

LENGTHY CONTENT

Speakers commonly use a what-clause (1) to move lengthy wording to the end of the clause (also called "weighting") or (2) to emphasize what one is about to say.

LENGTHY SUBJECT PREDICATE

His attention to detail and his ability to think outside-of-the-box and delight audiences

was brilliant¹. 

distinguished his work.² 

SUBJECT LENGTHY  PREDICATE

He

exceeded our expectations and pushed performance art to a new level. 

WHAT–CLAUSE

Lengthy wording is moved to the end the clause by placing everything else in a what-clause at the beginning of the clause.

WHAT-CLS PACKAGE BE EMPHASIS

What was brilliant

What distinguished his work

was

 

his attention to detail and his ability to think outside-of-the-box and delight audiences.

WHAT-CLS PACKAGE   VERB EMPHASIS

What he did

was

exceed our expectations and push performance art to a new level. 

 

what (fused relative) – [that (pron.) + which (rel. pron.)]  That which he did was…
distinguish (v.) – mark off as different.
exceed (v.) –   to go beyond, be better, be more

¹ ascriptive be – indicates a quality or characteristic of the predicate complement.  Michael Jackson was brilliant.
² specifying be – defines or identifies the predicate complement.  Michael Jackson was the King of Pop. / The King of Pop was Michael Jackson. (reversible)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It-Cleft

Emphasizing identity

 

 

 

It-Cleft

BASIC CLAUSE

In a basic sentence, no particular emphasis is expressed. However, if a question were asked, for example, "Who popularized the moon-walk step?" one would use a cleft sentence to answer.

SUBJECT PREDICATE

Michael Jackson

popularized the moon-walk step.

His performances

attracted fans

The video Thriller  

broke all records.  
(statistical records)

IT–CLEFT CLAUSE

An it-cleft places the content to be emphasized up front. The rest of the content is "packaged" into a that-clause.  The be verb is singular.

EMPHASIS THAT–CLAUSE

It is  Michael Jackson

who popularized the moon-walk step.

It was his performances

 

that attracted fans.

It was the video Thriller  

that broke all records.

 

It is a pronoun, here, and has no particular meaning other than being a placeholder for the displaced content.
~ awkward sounding
complement:  elements required by the verb: object, indirect object, predicative complement
choreography (n.) – the art of sequencing dance steps

Related page It-Subject Clauses (Huddleston 16 §9.1-3), That-Clauses  (Huddleston 11 §4.1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

It–Extraposition

Weighting content

 

 

 

It–Extraposition

BASIC CLASE

Speakers commonly reword a sentence that begins with a that-clause. They prefer to move a lengthy subject to the end of the clause. In this case, they use an it cleft

THAT–CLAUSE PREDICATE

~ That he had so much energy

impressed everyone.  (clause)

~ That he did his own choreography 

was impressive.  (Adj)

~ That he is no longer with us

is a pity.   (NP)

IT–EXTRAPOSITION

It displaces the subject to the end of the clause.  It is a dummy pronoun, a placeholder for the that-clause moved toward the end.

IT – CLEFT SENTENCE THAT–CLAUSE

It    impressed everyone

 refers to info after verb

that he had so much energy

It   was impressive

that he did his own choreography.

It   is a pity

that he is no longer with us.

 

It is a pronoun, here, and has no particular meaning other than being a placeholder for the displaced content.
~ awkward sounding
complement:  elements required by the verb: object, indirect object, predicative complement
choreography (n.) – the art of sequencing dance steps

See content on these pages:  It-Subject Clauses (Huddleston 16 §7.1 and §9.1-3), That-Clauses  (Huddleston 11 §4.1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cleft like

Emphasis with relative clauses

 

 

 

Who, where, when, why

BASIC SENTENCE

Who, where, when, and why (relative pronouns) are also used to shift focus to a particular part of a sentence. These are not true clefts because the wh-words do not repackage or isolate content. 

PERSON

Michael Jacksonthrilled his audiences.

PLACE

Michael Jackson lived on – Neverland Ranch.

TIME

Michael Jackson performed "Thriller" in 1982.

REASON

Michael Jackson wrote songsbecause he was inspired.

RELATIVE CLAUSE EMPHASIS

Here, —who, where, when, why— function as relative clause pronouns. The relative clause simply modifies the preceding noun — the man who, the place where, the time when, the reason why, and so on. (Including the noun is optional.)

WHO – CLEFT

Michael Jackson –was– a person who thrilled his audiences.

A person who thrilled his audiences –was– Michael Jackson.

WHERE – CLEFT

Neverland Ranch –was– the place where Michael Jackson lived.

The place where Michael Jackson lived –was– Neverland Ranch.

WHEN – CLEFT

Nineteen eighty two –was– the year when Michael Jackson performed "Thriller".

The year when Michael Jackson made "Thriller" –was– 1982.

WHY – CLEFT

~ Because he was inspired –was– the reason why* Michael Jackson wrote songs.

The reason why Michael Jackson wrote songs –was– because he was inspired.

 

awe (v.) – to have an overwhelming feeling of admiration and respect
~awkward sentence with because, reason, and why  * reason why sounds better as reason that

Also see In/ On/ At–Which Clauses

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

 

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

*It was the Prime Minister made that statement.

What was that,  a bomb?

~ No. What it was was a meteor hitting the ground.

SOLUTION

It was the Prime Minister who made that statement.

No, what it was, was a meteor hitting the ground.  [comma]

Add punctuation. A comma separates a repeated word, e.g., He took them in, in the morning.

 

* incorrect / ~ awkward

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grammar Notes

Traditional and Linguistic Description

Advanced

 

 

 

BIBER / SWAN HUDDLESTON ET. AL.

Biber et al. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999) (Biber 11.6)

"Clefting is similar to dislocation in the sense that information that could be given in a single clause is broken up, in this case into two clauses, each with its own verb… There are two major types of cleft constructions…"

it-cleft:
It's a dog I want.

What-cleft:
What I want is a dog.
 

Huddleston et al. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002) (Huddleston (16 § 9.1-4.2)

There are two main types of cleft clause, it-clefts and pseudo-clefts, with the latter category having basic and reversed versions.

a) I bought a dog.  [non-cleft] (16 § 9.2)
b)  It was a dog that I bought.  [cleft]
c)  What I bought was a dog. [pseudo-cleft]  (16 § 9.3)
d)  A dog was what I bought.  [reversed pseudo-cleft]

Both forms, it-clefts and pseudo-clefts include the specifying use of be.

Swan, Michael. "Clefts sentences." Practical English Usage (2009) (Swan 131.1-5)

"We can emphasize particular words and expressions by putting everything into a kind of relative clause except the words we want to emphasis: this makes them stand out." (Swan gives several examples, some of which are paraphrased  below.)

i.   A dog is the thing I want.
ii.  The thing I want is a dog.
iii.  In the dog house is where the dog stays. 
iv.   The place where the dog stays is in the dog house.
v.   What he did was bark all the time.
vi.  What happened was he barked all the time.
vii.  All I want is a non-barking dog.
viii. The only thing I remember is the constant barking.

Both forms, it-clefts and pseudo-clefts include the specifying use of be. (16 §9.3) (4 §5.5.1)

Ascriptive be (predicate complement) denotes a property and characteristically has the form of an adjective phrase (AdjP) or a non-referential noun phrase (NP). The subject is referential:  Michael Jackson was brilliant. [a quality]

Specifying be (predicate complement) defines or identifies the subject. Michael Jackson was the King of Pop. [identity]

The use of specifying be allows the clause to be reversed:

  • What Michael Jackson wanted was love and privacy.
  • Love and privacy was what Michael Jackson wanted.

But not:

  • What Michael Jackson did was brilliant.
  • *Brilliant was what Michael Jackson did.

 

TREE DIAGRAM OF SIMPLE SENTENCE TREE DIAGRAM OF (PSEUDO) CLEFT SENTENCE

His energy amazed me

simple sentence diagram 

His energy  was  what amazed me

subordinated what clause 

 

Grammatical Functions: Subject – (Subj) the agent of the action; Predicate/Predicator – (Pred) the action or change in state; Complement – Comp  –  an element required to complete the subject and predicate; Adjunct – an element not required by the verb, a modifying word, phrase, clause; Supplement – a comment in the form of a word, phrase or clause that is loosely related to the central idea of the sentence.

Lexical Categories "Parts of Speech": N – noun / pronoun; NP – noun phrase; V – verb; VP – verb phrase; Adj – adjective; AdjP – adjective phrase; Adv – adverb; AdvP – adverb phrase; P – preposition; PP – prepositional phrase; Det – determiners –  noun markers (e.g., articles, quantifiers, demonstratives, possessives); Subord – subordinator; Coord – coordinator; Interj – interjection; INF – infiniitve: GER – gerund; Nonfinite: an infinitive or gerund clause

 

 

 

Resources 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 1

Starting the Band

band
 

 

Read the reworded paragraph for errors.

Original   

The J Street Band got together in an interesting manner. Lead singer Jeremy put the band together. He held a blind audition for interested musicians. The person he chose was surprising. He selected a guitarist who was a 70-years old. His age made no difference—the guy rocked!

What makes a band successful is hard to say. That the fans like the band's songs and style matters most. Both talent and hard work are required. Most people don't realize how long musicians work in the shadows before achieving recognition. 

Reworded (with errors)

How the J Street Band got together is an interesting story. It was lead singer Jeremy put the band together. What he did was held a blind audition for interested musicians. It surprising who he chose. The guitarist who he selected was 70-years old. It made no difference he was older—the guy rocked!

It hard to say what makes a band successful. What matters most is that the fans like the band's songs and style. What is required are both talent and hard work. What most people don't realize is how long musicians work in the shadows before achieving recognition. 

achieve (v.) – reach (a goal)

in the shadows (expression) – not in the spotlight of fame

recognition (n.) – having others note the accomplishments of someone

talent (n.) – skill, experience, natural and practiced ability

 

 

 

 

Is the sentence grammatically correct or incorrect?

  1. Select your response.
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check 1-10" button at the bottom, or click the check button to the left  as you go.

 

1.
How the J Street Band got together is an interesting story.

   

2.
It was lead singer Jeremy put the band together.

   

3.
What he did was held a blind audition for interested musicians.

   

4.
It surprising who he chose.

   

5.
The guitarist who he picked was 70-years old.

   

6.
It made no difference he was older—the guy rocked!

Correct    

7.
It hard to say what makes a band successful.

   

8.
What matters most is that the fans like the band's songs and style.

   

9.
What is required are both talent and hard work.

   

10.
What most people don't realize is how long musicians work in the shadows before achieving recognition. 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 2

Doing What They Love

Jeremy and the band
 

 

Select the wording that can complete the sentence.

  1. Select the response from the menu that best completes the sentence.
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" button.

 

11.

12.

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16.

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20.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 3

Placing emphasis on different parts of a sentence

 

 

 

Reword the sentence.

  1. Rewrite the sentence to a sentence beginning with the given word.
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" button to the right. 

 

21.
What surprised the band was fans jumping on the stage.
USE:
that


22.
Fans jumping on the stage was surprising to the band.
USE: what    (the action which)


23.
Fans jumping on the stage was surprising.
USE: where


24.
Fans jumping on the stage was surprising.
USE: that


25.
Fans jumping on the stage surprised the band.
USE: when (at the moment which)