• Galina Blankenship

Use of Cleft Constructions (It-Cleft and Wh-Cleft) in the English Language

Updated: Jul 10

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

How to Construct and Use Clefts

Cleft sentences give prominence to a focused position through changes that include splitting the sentence. Cleft sentences are of two basic types: it-clefts and wh-clefts.

It was a small red convertible that he bought.

What he bought was a small red convertible.


It-Cleft Constructions

It-clefts are formed from regular sentences by adding it + be at the start, moving the focused information to follow, and following the focused information with an added that + the rest of the sentence.

He bought a small red convertible.

It was a small red convertible that he bought.

Elements that can be focused include noun phrases, time adverbials, adjuncts of purpose, prepositional phrases, and adverbial subordinate clauses.

It was John who spoke to Bill.

It was last year that he got promoted.

It is not to make life easier that they’re changing the rules.

It wasn't for the bonus that he did it.

It is because he was worried that he called you.


Wh-Cleft Constructions

Wh-clefts are formed from regular sentences by adding what at the start and be before the focused information.

He bought a small red convertible.

What he bought was a small red convertible.

Elements that can be focused include noun phrases, infinitive complements, interrogative complements, gerund complements, and verb phrases.

What she wanted was a glass of milk.

What he promised was to have it today.

What I don't know is why they decided to do it today.

What I really dislike is listening to nonsense.

What he does is sell cars.

Reversed wh-clefts exist for many wh-clefts. The focused information occurs at the beginning followed by be + what.

A vacation is what I really need.

(Cf. wh-cleft: What I really need is a vacation.)


Use of It-Cleft Constructions: Topicalization & Focusing Strategy

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

  • Contradict (with the focused position containing new information and the that/who-clause, old information):

A: Bob must have recommended him as department chairperson.

B: Actually, it was Betty who recommended him.

  • Argue a point in persuasive discourse (with the focused position containing old information and the that-clause, new information):

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

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

  • Establish a topic that is going to be elaborated (with the entire sentence containing new information):

It was just about 90 years ago that Henry Ford gave us the weekend. On September 25, 1926, in a somewhat shocking move…


Uses of Wh-Cleft Constructions: Topicalization

Wh-clefts, in which new information is generally in the focused position, are used especially in conversation to:

  • Resume a topic temporarily relegated to the background:

A: Well, they served us some kind of white beverage in these interesting-looking bowls.

B: What kind of bowls?

A: They were all covered with beautiful colors and designs. Well, what I didn't realize at the time was that the beverage was alcoholic.

  • Present the gist of preceding conversation:

A: If I go there, my mom will be asking me what I am doing with myself. And then both my mom and my dad will start to ask me why I don't have a steady job yet.

B: So, what you're saying is that they will never get off your case.

  • Contradict something that has been said and possibly present an alternative explanation:

A: People reach retirement age, they usually slow down and become less interested in things like physical appearance and lifestyle.

B: Actually, what often happens is that older people become more interested in regaining some of their youthful appearance and lifestyle.

  • To clarify a possible misunderstanding or an imperfect understanding:

A: So, I was wondering if you could lend me a DVD.


A: You have a lot la DVDs, don’t you?

B: Yes, I do. What I meant was WHICH DVD do you want?

  • To express the speaker's stance, or attitude, regarding something in the conversation:

A: So, I guess you'll be happy to start drawing your Social Security check. You’ve looked into it, I suppose?

B: Yeah. What surprises me is that the amount you get actually goes up every year.

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