A cleft sentence is one in which a single thought is split (or cleft) into two parts. This allows one to emphasize a specific element by moving it from its normal position into a position of focus or of higher stress. In writing, where intonation can’t be used to indicate emphasis, the cleft structure can be quite useful.
Original: The cat ate the pizza.
Cleft: It was the cat that ate the pizza.
Original: We need a better connection to the server.
Cleft: What we need is a better connection to the server.
Original: I want a room somewhere.
Cleft: All I want is a room somewhere.
The following examples show that different elements of the same sentence can be emphasized using a cleft sentence.
Original: Meera ate the biriyani last night.
Cleft: It was Meera who ate the biriyani last night.
The opening slot of a sentence is a position of low stress or emphasis. A cleft sentence allows you to shift the subject Meera to a position of higher stress in the sentence. The construction in the example is known as the it-cleft.
Here is the it-cleft emphasizing a different word in the sentence.
It was the biriyani that Meera ate last night.
Here, the emphasis has shifted to biriyani. Notice how this changes the point of the sentence; the sentence presumes that Meera ate something last night, but it’s not clear what. This statement answers that uncertainty by stating that it was the biriyani (not any other food) that Meera ate.
It was last night that Meera ate the biriyani.
Again the focus changes, this time to when Meera ate the biriyani (in this sentence, it is already known that Meera ate the biriyani).
Another common cleft sentence is the what-cleft.
Original: Leela likes taking other people’s money.
Cleft: What Leela likes is taking other people’s money.
The additional emphasis is placed on likes in the cleft sentence. The what-cleft can also be used to move the verb phrase of the original sentence into the subject position.
Taking other people’s money is what Leela likes.
The cleft sentence is so-called because it cleaves one clause into two.
Single clause: Meera ate the biriyani last night.
Two clauses: It was Meera (independent clause) who ate the biriyani last night (relative clause).
There are three ways to form a cleft sentence.
- A clause beginning with ‘what’ linked to the rest of the sentence by the verb ‘to be’. The verb in the ‘what’ clause is usually ‘do’. If this is the case, the verb ‘to be’ is followed by the infinitive, and the ‘to’ is optional.
Original: I really like ice cream.
Cleft: What I really like is ice cream.
Original: He complained to the board of directors.
Cleft: What he did was complain to the board of directors.
- A clause beginning with ‘All’
Original: You’re the only thing I want for Christmas.
Cleft: All I want for Christmas is you.
- A clause beginning with It is / Was linked by ‘that’ / ‘who’
Original: Mike left the cake on the table.
Cleft: It was Mike who left the cake on the table.
|Cleft sentences||Emphasis location|
|It is basketball that Edward loves playing.||Basketball|
|It is Edward that loves playing basketball.||Edward|
|It is playing basketball what Edward loves.||Playing basketball|
|What Edward loves is playing basketball.||The thing that Edward loves|
|Playing basketball is what Edward loves.||Playing basketball|
|All Edward loves is playing basketball.||All Edward loves|
|Playing basketball is all Edward loves.||Playing basketball|
In a cleft sentence, the pronoun it is followed by the element that is to be emphasized. The basic pattern is “It is X that Y,” where the reader is to focus on X.
Non-cleft: These flowers bloom in winter.
Cleft: It is in winter that these flowers bloom.
The single clause “These flowers bloom in winter” is divided (or cleft) into two clauses: “It is in winter” and “that these flowers bloom.” Focus is placed on when the flowers bloom: in winter.
Non-cleft: James lost the bet.
Cleft: It was James who lost the bet.
Non-cleft: The war ended in 1918.
Cleft: It was in 1918 that the war ended.
Different parts of the sentence may be brought into focus, depending on what is to be emphasized.
Original: Rita drove a motorcycle down a mountain at breakneck speed.
Cleft: It was Rita who drove a motorcycle down a mountain at breakneck speed.
Cleft: It was a motorcycle that Rita drove down a mountain at breakneck speed.
Cleft: It was down a mountain that Rita drove a motorcycle at breakneck speed.
Cleft: It was at breakneck speed that Rita drove a motorcycle down a mountain.
The anticipatory it acts as a dummy subject in cleft sentences, followed by the element that is to be brought into focus. The structure then is “it + be verb + focus element + that/who clause.”
Original: Love makes the world go round.
Cleft: It is love that makes the world go round.
It + is + focus element (love) + clause (that makes the world go round)
If the element that follows the be verb in a cleft sentence is plural, still use the singular verb: “it is” or “it was,” not “it are” or “it were.”
It is migrants who have suffered most in the crisis.
Pseudo-Cleft or Wh-Cleft
Pseudo-cleft statement starting with what present information that is known, followed by new information. With their cleft-like structure, these sentences direct focus on a specific part of the sentence. The reader is encouraged to focus on the new information that appears toward the end of the sentence, in the complement position (a complement completes an expression).
We’ll never make it to the station on time. What we need is a miracle.
The speaker uses the what cleft structure to emphasize that which is needed: a miracle.
What you can opt for is the honeymoon package.
What I’m asking you for is a second chance.
English also has cleft sentences starting with how, who, when, where, and why, where the focus is on the complement position toward the end of the sentence. These are less common than the what–cleft.
How you should mix the dough is with your hands.
It can also be said, “You should mix the dough with your hands,” but the cleft structure directs focus on how it should be done: “with your hands.”
Who you should speak with is Anita.
When the war ended was 1918.
Where James lived was a dark and damp cave in the mountains.
Why I ask is because I need to file a report.
More often than not, pseudo-cleft structures start with noun phrases like “the way,” “the person,” “the time,” “the place,” “the reason,” “someone,” and “something” in subject position and the focus element as complement.
The way you should mix the dough is with your hands.
The person you should speak with is Anita.
The year the war ended was 1918.
The place where James lived was a dark and damp cave in the mountains.
The reason I ask is that I need to file a report.
Something you can opt for is the honeymoon package.
Like in all cleft sentences, in the reverse pseudo-cleft, we change the word order to place focus on a particular part of the sentence—in this case, at the start. The order of the what cleft is reversed so as to direct focus on the subject instead of on the complement.
A miracle is what we need.
If you’re looking for a deal, the honeymoon package is what you should opt for.
A second chance is what I’m asking you for.
Using all instead of what in a cleft sentence is an effective way to place focus on one thing over all else. The cleft structure makes the reader focus on the phrase that follows the be verb (is, was).
All we need is a miracle.
It can also be said, “We need a miracle,” but the cleft structure lays focus on “a miracle.” The use of all instead of what indicates that nothing but a miracle is needed.
All I’m asking for is a second chance.
All I wanted was to fly to the moon.