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  • Writer's pictureGalina Blankenship

Clefting in English, or “What the Point Is... Is That…” vs. “The Point Is.. Is That…”?

Updated: Apr 7

Drawing "Paradiso Canto" by Gustave Dore
Paradiso Canto by Gustave Dore

Topics, Topic-Shifting, and Topic-Marking in Languages

In English, intonation plays a key role in assigning prominence to constituents within sentences—more so than in French, for example, where prominence tends to be a property of specific phrasing, or in Turkish, in which emphasis often depends on a particular ordering of words within a sentence. This means that in writing, when we cannot use intonation, indicating sentential stresses must rely on visual cues only.

Some languages (Japanese, Korean, Classic Chinese, etc.) use special markers to signal the topic of a sentence, a constituent that generally occurs at the beginning and indicates what the sentence is about. For example, in Japanese, topics are indicated by a postpositional particle -wa placed after the topic-element.

Turkish has devised certain topic-shifting devices: the postpositional clitic ise or the converbial construction gelince that signal shifting to new topics. Although bearing no stress, the clitic ise is able to pre-stress any word that precedes it. Other Turkish clitics, such as da(de) or bile, when placed after the initial word(s) in sentences, effectively act as pre-stressers. The English equivalent topic-marking construction is as for ... :

Ben ise evde kaldım.

As for me, I've stayed at home.

In both Turkish and English, the topicalized elements are often marked with a distinctive comma intonation in speech or an introductory comma in writing. Therefore, one can argue that the introductory comma in both languages functions as a topic-marker. Topicalized elements range from subjects and objects to adverbials and discourse connectives (as shown below):

Önceleyin, karşıdaki koca Stanköy Adası görmez oldum.

At first, I stopped seeing the large island of Stanköy that was across me.

Halikarnas Balıkçısı, Bütün Eserleri: 1


Cleft Constructions

In addition to the topic-marking construction as for ..., English has also devised special constructions called clefts or cleft sentences to unequivocally signal the elements in sentences that need emphasizing. The term cleft (from cleaving) suggests the mechanism of creating cleft structures, i.e., by cutting or cleaving a single clause in two and stitching the two parts together again in different arrangements.

By definition, clefts are a writing convention, and as such, many of them are rather formal in tone. Nonetheless, some clefts have become part of the English idiom, used in both formal and casual speech.

Generally, a cleft sentence is a special kind of complex sentence (consisting of a main and dependent clause), whose main purpose is to divide a sentence into two parts: an emphasized part (in most cases, a contrasting topic) and de-emphasized part, with a clear boundary and distinction between the two parts.

In written English, this arrangement is particularly useful, since we cannot use intonation to mark emphasis or the boundaries of the emphasized part. In speech, the boundary between the two parts is often used as a place to take a pause (that may sound like hesitation) and recuperate, especially before the focused part that requires more effort to utter.


Four Types of Cleft Constructions

There are two basic and two variation types of cleft sentences:

1. It-clefts

2. Wh-clefts

3. Reverse wh-clefts

4. Demonstrative this-clefts

1. It-clefts utilize yet another construction in English, the so-called dummy it-subject, to draw attention to a constituent placed after the it-subject. It-clefts typically emphasize subjects and objects, as well as place and time adverbial phrases and clauses:

Our mother is cooking the Christmas dinner in our kitchen.

It is our mother that is cooking the Christmas dinner in our kitchen.

It is the Christmas dinner that our mother is cooking in our kitchen.

It is in our kitchen that our mother is cooking the Christmas dinner.

By displacing the subject to the end of the clause, it functions as a placeholder for the content moved to the end of the clause.

2. In the wh-type cleft constructions, constituents are fitted into a complex nominal sentence to draw attention to its subject constructed as a nominal wh-clause (sentential subject):

What our mother is cooking in our kitchen is the Christmas dinner.

3. The reverse wh-clefts do exactly what their name suggests: they reverse the ordering of the two wh-clausal parts:

The Christmas dinner is what our mother is cooking in our kitchen.

4. The demonstrative this-clefts begin with the demonstrative pronouns this or that instead of it or wh-word. They are often used in speech:

You see that villa? That’s what I’d like to buy.

This is what I mean!


It-Clefts: Focusing Device

It-clefts are complex sentences (with a main and a dependent clause) that are used to emphasize a particular constituent. They are formed from regular sentences (e.g., I love you) by splitting the sentence into two halves (e.g., I love | you):

1) The first half is structured as a simple nominal sentence (linked with the verb be) with the introductory dummy it-subject and a complementary predicative.

2) The second half is a complementary that- or wh-clause. An it-cleft thus has two complements structured into its construction: the first is a nominal complement that receives a strong focus-stress, while the second one is a that- or wh-complement that presents some sort of presupposed information:

I love you.

It + is + [you] + that + [I love]

It is you that I love.

Alternatively, with animate subjects, that can be replaced with who:

It is [you] whom [I love]. It is [you] who [I love].

formal informal


It-Clefts: Information Structure

Consider these exchanges with it-cleft sentences:

A: Do you love her? A: Are you going to marry Susan?

B: No, it’s you that I love. B: No, silly! It’s you that I love!

In both exchanges, the focus falls on you. The adjacent that-clauses, however, may have different interpretations: in the first exchange, it seems to represent backgrounded old information (backgrounded topic), whereas the second that-clause presents backgrounded new information (backgrounded focus). In either case, the that-clause represents presupposed, post-focused, de-emphasized information.

It-clefts should, therefore, be understood contextually. They are often constructed for a pragmatic purpose, with an emphatic discourse coded into them.


It-Clefts: Three Main Uses & Stressing Patterns

It-clefts have the following uses, depending on the distribution of given (old) and new information in the sentence to:

Contradicting or contrasting (with the focused position containing contrastive new information (contrastive topic) and the that/who-clause, backgrounded old information (old topic):

A: Bob must have recommended him as department chairperson.

B: Actually, it was Betty [who recommended him].

new --old (backgrounded topic)--

Arguing a point (with the focused position containing contrastive old information (contrastive topic) and the that-clause, new information (presentational topic)):

A: But why is shape of the wing so important?

B: It is [the shape that determines the maximum speed].

old --------------------new information--------------------

Establishing a topic to be elaborated (with the entire sentence containing new information (presentational topic)):

[It was just about 90 years ago that Henry Ford gave us the weekend].

-----------------------------------new information----------------------------------


It-Clefts: Focusing Any Element Except Verbs

The focused constituent in an it-cleft is often a noun phrase:

It was John who spoke to Bill. It was last year that he got promoted.

However, it can also be, a prepositional phrase, an adverbial phrase, a nonfinite clause, a gerund, or an adverbial clause:

It was not [for the bonus] that [we worked so hard]. It was [greedily and speedily] that [Bill drank his beer].

prepositional phrase adverb

It is not [to make life easier] that [we’re making the rules]. It could be [leaving the office] that [the boss reacted to].

infinitival clause gerund-clause

It was in September that he first found out about it. It was with great reluctance that Maria accepted the invitation.

time adverbial phrase manner adverbial phrase

In it-cleft sentences, emphasis may be thrown upon any part of the sentence that can potentially be a complement. This means, therefore, that predicates (finite verbs), which function as heads to complements, can never be focused in it-cleft sentences.


Focusing of Pronominal Subjects

When the emphasized subject is a pronoun, we can use either of these constructions. Note the number agreement between the subject and verb:

It is I who am responsible. It's me that's (who's) responsible.

formal informal

It is you who are in the wrong. It's you that's in the wrong.

formal informal

Paraphrasing can help avoid confusion:

I'm the person who's responsible. I'm the one who's responsible.


Focusing of Topics

The topic in it-clefts is often contrastive:

It’s the other book, not this book, that I want to read.

The verb be in it-cleft sentences can be negated, in which case, the first negative part is contrasted with the second positive part:

It’s not low pay that we object to, it’s the extra responsibilities.


Focusing of Not

It is not that they wanted to move here: It's just that they need a change.


Focusing of Prepositional Phrases

Karl was always there to help her, and it was to him that she now turned for support.


Focusing of Adverbial Clauses

It is because he was worried that he called you. It wasn’t until we arrived at the hotel that we met them.

adverbial reason because-clause adverbial temporal until-clause

It was only when I read her letter that I realized what was happening.

adverbial temporal when-clause

Focused adverbial clauses can also be used as main clauses in complex adverbial sentences:

If he wants to be a lawyer, it is because he wants to make a lot of money.

Cleft-Focusing Test

The focusing ability of it-clefts is a useful tool for distinguishing integral (essential) adverbial clauses from peripheral (loosely related) ones.

​In English, some subordinating conjunctions (since, as, when, while), in addition to their primary integral uses (as adverbial time-clauses), have historically acquired secondary (and even tertiary) uses, which are peripherally (semantically less closely) related to the main clause’s event. ​For example, both since- and as-clauses have the secondary uses as reason clauses (since/as the weather was fine, we held the party outside); the when-clause, as a concession clause (He gave me a beer, when what I’d asked for was a shandy); and the while-clause, as a contrast clause (My children enjoy jazz, while l prefer classical music).

The difference between the integral and peripheral uses is perfectly illustrated by because- and since-reason clauses.

Because-clause below is integral, as it informs us for the first time of the reason for the main action:

He called you [because he was worried].

Topic Focus

With since instead of because, the adverbial clause loses its emphasis and reads as a reminder of the reason for the main action (i.e., as a backgrounded topic):

He called you, [since he was worried].

Focus Backgrounded Topic

We can verify this backgrounding aspect of the since-clause by using the it-cleft focusing test:

It is because he was worried that he called you.

* I̶t̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶s̶i̶n̶c̶e̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶w̶o̶r̶r̶i̶e̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶a̶l̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶.̶

The primary use of since is temporal, which means that it should be able to focalize:

He has not spoken to us [since his wife left him].

It is [since his wife left him] that he has not spoken to us.


It-Cleft Idiomatic Variations


All (that) she wanted to buy was a few books.


There seemed to be nothing that we could do. There goes my hope for a better future.

There comes a time when you have to do something. And then there’s this man that she met online.


It-Clefts: Pragmatics of Presupposition

As shown above, one of the most common uses of it-clefts is to contrast with any previously presented information.

It-clefting can represent a unique stressing pattern: While the first part (it + [be] + focus) is contrastively focused, the second part (that-clause) can read like a reference to an old or given topic (meaning, a backgrounded topic). In speech, such presupposed information is clearly distinguishable thanks to its falling intonation and a dramatic pitch drop.

Reading aloud an exchange involving a contrastive it-cleft construction easily reveals this intonational pattern:

1. The more stressed the focused part is (in bold), the more de-stressed the backgrounded part is (in italics):

A: Did you hear? Lea bought the car from Olav.

B: No, it was Olav that bought the car from Lea.

2. If the focused part is not overtly contrastive or contradictory, the emphasis will be toned down and the sentence, more balanced, even though the second part will still have a lower pitch than the focused part:

It was to show how much I cared for her that I bought her the necklace.

I don’t mind her criticizing me, but it’s how she does it that I object to.

The de-stressing intonation of presupposed information can be easily explained: A presupposed proposition is regarded by the speaker as a given truth, or something that is so evident that requires no additional intonational effort. The boundaries of the backgrounded part are markedly low pitch, reflecting the speaker's switching to the energy-saving mode.

This is possibly the key to understanding the nature of utterances as intonational units. Since the sound-producing aspect of speech operates by energy sourced in the physical capacity of our lungs, each utterance or sentence we make is essentially a thermodynamic enclosed system.

Just as a thermodynamic system deals with the transfer of energy (which can never be created or destroyed, but only converted) from one place or form to another, so do we when each time we push through an utterance the finite amount of energy we have in our lungs. Without any pre-thought, we nonetheless know how to distribute that energy within a sentence, whether by spreading it evenly or by choosing the part to apply most of the illocutionary force, while letting the rest be low-energy.


It-Cleft Clause vs. Relative Clause

The that-clause within it-cleft constructions is hard to define. Syntactically, it resembles an essential relative clause. This resemblance can cause ambiguity:

Cleft Clause:

A: Was it a bookshelf that we got from Ann?

B: It was the vase that Ann gave us. [= It was the vase, and not a bookshelf, that Ann gave us]

marked focus

Relative Clause:

I heard the glass break. It was the vase that Ann gave us. [= It was the vase that was given to us by Ann.]

non-marked focus

To avoid this ambiguity, no other wh-words, save for that and who, should be used with it-clefts:

A: How did he manage to save the firm? Did he cut his staff and make it profitable?

B: No, it was by improving distribution that he made it profitable.

B: N̶o̶,̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶b̶y̶ ̶i̶m̶p̶r̶o̶v̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶d̶i̶s̶t̶r̶i̶b̶u̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶h̶o̶w̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶m̶a̶d̶e̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶p̶r̶o̶f̶i̶t̶a̶b̶l̶e̶.̶

A: Was he ill? Is that why you returned?

B: It was not because he was ill that we decided to return.

B: I̶t̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶b̶e̶c̶a̶u̶s̶e̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶w̶h̶y̶ ̶w̶e̶ ̶d̶e̶c̶i̶d̶e̶d̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶r̶e̶t̶u̶r̶n̶.̶

Unlike relative clauses, which either define or describe their related noun heads, it-clefts identify (point to) their noun heads.

In it-clefts, it has no reference outside the sentence, whereas in relative clauses, it is a pronoun typically referring to a previous discourse:

A: Who is your boss? A: Is it Mr. or Mrs. Blake who has been appointed?

B: It is Mr. Blake—who has just been appointed. B: It is Mr. Blake who has just been appointed.

It refers to your boss in the preceding question. It doesn't refer to anything (save for its copy in a previous sentence).


Cleft Clause (formal): OR Cleft Clause (less formal):

It was in Warsaw that the film was made. It was in Warsaw where the film was made.

[= And not in Kraków.] [= And not in Kraków.]

Nonessential Relative Clause:

It was in Warsaw, where the film was made.

[= It happened in Warsaw, and by the way, the film was made there.]

Cleft Clause (formal): Cleft Clause (less formal):

It was in the city that the film was made. OR It was in the city where the film was made.

[= And not in the village.] [= And not in the village.]

Essential Relative Clause: OR Nonessential Relative Clause:

It was in the city where the film was made. It was in the city, where the film was made.

[= In which city?] [= Where was it?]


Wh-Clefts (Pseudo-Clefts): Sentential Clauses

Like an it-cleft sentence, wh-clause can be used to highlight one element for contrast, with the focus falling outside the wh-clause:

We need more time. It is [more time] that [we need].

simple sentence if-cleft

[What we need] is [more time]. [More time] is [what we need].

wh-cleft reversed wh-cleft

It can be either subject or complement of the verb be, although the subject position is more common, which is why it is also referred to as a nominal relative clause:

Both wh- and it-clauses can imply a contrast:

We don’t need more money—what we need is more time.

Wh-clefts are formed from regular sentences by adding what at the start and be before the focused information. This way, we can focus attention on certain information in a sentence:

A: What did Vera buy? Was it a fantasy collection?

B: What Vera bought was a poetry collection.

Elements that can be focused include noun phrases, infinitive co