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Making Sense of Grammar by David Crystal (Longman, 2004)


A construction in which some element in a sentence is moved from its normal position into a separate clause to give it greater emphasis.

The two major types of cleft constructions in English are it-clefts and wh-clefts (see below).

See also:


From the Old English, "to cleave"

Examples and Observations:

  • "On Thursday, it was Dmitry Medvedev who received the charm offensive."
    (The Sunday Times, March 29, 2009)

  • "It was just last year that she was almost battered to pieces at the mouth of the Persian Gulf."
    (Joan Druett, Shark Island. Macmillan, 2005)

  • "It was Roosevelt who impetuously blurted out the 'unconditional surrender' ultimatum at a press conference in Casablanca, to the surprise of Winston Churchill, who was sitting at his side and who had no alternative but to nod approval."
    (George N. Crocker, Roosevelt's Road to Russia. Regnery, 1958)

  • "There are two major types of cleft constructions: it-clefts and wh-clefts.

    • it-cleft:
      1 It's a man I want. (FICT)
      <compare: I want a man.>
    • wh-cleft:
      2 What I want is something to eat, now! (CONV)
      <compare: I want something to eat.>
    Clefts are used to bring particular elements of the clause into additional focus . . .. The extra focused element normally appears early in it-clefts and late in wh-clefts. Thus in 1 a man is focused, and in 2 something to eat is focused."
    (Douglas Biber et al., Longman Student Grammar. Pearson, 2002)

  • "What I needed was a weapon."
    (David Sedaris, Naked. Little, Brown & Company, 1997)

  • "A cleft sentence is a sentence that is cleft (split) so as to put the focus on one part of it. The cleft sentence is introduced by it, which is followed by a verb phrase whose main verb is generally be. The focused part comes next, and then the rest of the sentence is introduced by a relative pronoun, relative determiner, or relative adverb. If we take the sentence Tom felt a sharp pain after lunch, two possible cleft sentences formed from it are It was Tom who felt a sharp pain after lunch and It was after lunch that Tom felt a sharp pain."
    (Sidney Greenbaum, Oxford English Grammar. Oxford Univ. Press, 1996)

  • "The cleft sentence is a very easy way of highlighting different parts of a clause. The clause is 'cleft' into two components, related in the following way:

    • At the beginning is the pronoun it followed by a form of the verb be
    • After the verb comes the focus of the cleft sentence (shown in bold below).
    • This is then postmodified by a clause containing the rest of the information in the original sentence.
    "To illustrate this, here is a clause where the elements are in the expected order:
    Di read a poem in the cafe last night.
    The following clefted options are now available:

    • It was Di who read a poem in the cafe last night.
    • It was a poem that Di read in the cafe last night.
    • It was in the cafe that Di read a poem last night.
    • It was last night that Di read a poem in the cafe.
    Not all elements take a clefted focus with equal facility."
    (David Crystal, Making Sense of Grammar. Longman, 2004)
Also Known As: cleft sentence, cleft construction, cleft clause
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