Cleft sentence

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A cleft sentence is so called because it may be thought of as having been formed by the division of a simpler, single-clause sentence into a more complex, two-clause sentence which gives emphasis to a particular element in the original sentence. (The adjective ‘cleft’ is a past participle of the verb ‘to cleave’, which means: to split or divide.)

  • For example, from the simple, single-clause sentence ‘Jack gave Jill a book of verse on her birthday’ we may form a number of cleft sentences as follows:
It was Jack (and not, e.g., Joe) who gave Jill a book of verse on her birthday.
It was to Jill (and not, e.g., to Janet) that Jack gave a book of verse on her birthday.
It was a book of verse (and not, e.g., a novel) that Jack gave Jill on her birthday.
It was on her birthday (and not, e.g., at Christmas) that Jack gave Jill a book of verse.

It is clear that each of these cleft sentences emphasizes a different element in the original single-clause sentence.

  • Other cleft sentences – sometimes known as pseudo-cleft sentences – are formed by making use of other linguistic structures. For example:
The person who gave Jill a book of verse on her birthday was Jack.
The person to whom Jack gave a book of verse on her birthday was Jill.
What Jack gave Jill on her birthday was a book of verse.
What Jack did on Jill’s birthday was (to) give her a book of verse.
All Jack did on Jill’s birthday was (to) give her a book of verse.
The occasion on which Jack gave Jill a book of verse was her birthday.
  • More cleft sentences may be formed by reversing the order of subject and predicate in the above pseudo-cleft sentences so that the emphasised element comes not at the end but at the beginning of the sentence. For example:
Jack was the person who gave Jill a book of poems on her birthday.
Giving Jill a book of poems was what Jack did on her birthday.
And so on.
  • Cleft sentences may be embedded as clauses within more complex sentences. For example:
I wondered whether it was Jack who gave Jill a book of verse on her birthday.
Although it was Jack who gave Jill a book of verse on her birthday, everyone thought it was Joe.

See also Forms of emphasis and Emphasizer.