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What Is a Cleft Sentence?

Jim B.
Updated May 23, 2024
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A cleft sentence is a particular sentence structure in the English language which splits a simple sentence into one with a main clause and a subordinate clause. By using this technique, a writer can emphasize one part of a sentence much like a speaker can by intoning certain words. In a cleft sentence, the word "it" is often used as the starting point, followed by a form of the word "to be" and the main focus of the sentence that the writer wishes to emphasize. Another way to form this sentence is to begin with a relative clause begun by an interrogative word to set up the main emphasis of the sentence.

When someone goes about giving a speech to a crowd, he or she can control the points of emphasis with the tone of his or her voice. By bringing a certain amount of extra authority to certain words, a speaker can let the listener know what he or she wants them to remember. Writers usually don't have that luxury, but they can show emphasis with the use of a cleft sentence.

As an example of such a sentence, consider first the simple sentence, "I want to study history in school." Taken as it is, that sentence can be emphasized in several different ways by a speaker. By making it a cleft sentence, the writer can pinpoint the emphasis. For example, he could say, "It is history that I want to study in school." That leaves no doubt where the emphasis should be placed.

Another way that a cleft sentence can be formed is through the use of a relative clause. These clauses generally start with an interrogative word like "who" or "what." One such example would be a transformation of the simple sentence, "I want to travel to Italy in the spring." It can be changed to read, "Where I really want to travel is Italy in the spring." This sentence puts the emphasis on Italy.

By shifting the words and clauses, the writer of a cleft sentence can shift the emphasis anywhere he or she wants. For example, the sentence from the previous paragraph can be rephrased to say, "When I want to travel to Italy is the spring." It can also be changed to the sentence, "What I want to do is travel to Italy in the spring." Much like a speaker shifts his intonation, these subtle shifts in wording can signify changing emphasis in a sentence.

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Jim B.
By Jim B. , Former Writer
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own successful blog. His passion led to a popular book series, which has gained the attention of fans worldwide. With a background in journalism, Beviglia brings his love for storytelling to his writing career where he engages readers with his unique insights.

Discussion Comments

By anon964059 — On Aug 02, 2014

The example given "Where I really want to travel is Italy in the spring" indicates, -as already explained, the he/she does want to go somewhere. This is being presupposed. That's the true content of a cleft sentence.

The difference between an uncleft and a cleft sentence is clearly demonstrated by what a "yes" or a "no" would be an answer to.

A) "It's our party which has done a lot to eradicate crime" - "No".

This indicates: "I don't believe that your party has done that."

B) "Our party has done a lot to eradicate crime" - "No."

This means that a lot has not been done to eradicate crime.

By anon964056 — On Aug 02, 2014

If Miss Daphne has taught English for years and not come across "cleft sentence", something must have been terribly wrong for years. It's quite an ordinary term in linguistics.

By anon964053 — On Aug 02, 2014

This article on cleft sentences repeats an ancient misconception of what it's all about.

The function of a cleft sentence is not to put emphasis on a particular part of it. It's all a question of what is termed presupposition. This is a common rhetorical trick, much used by (scheming) politicians to smuggle a message into the minds of the listeners.

The content of the subordinate clause is taken for granted and not at all previously mentioned, let alone discussed.

Take two sentences like: "Our party has done a lot to eradicate crime in this town" and "It's our party that has done a lot to combat crime".

On the surface, the two are quite alike, but in the second the fact that a lot actually has been done to eradicate crime is taken for granted and is not up for discussion. It is "presupposed", so to speak.

In the example given by the writer of this article the fact that the subject does want to study something at school is presupposed, linguistically speaking.

Put differently, one might say: The main part of a cleft sentence contains new information, and the relative clause contains (alleged) old information.

By MissDaphne — On Dec 19, 2011

You know, I've been teaching English for years and I've never come across this term! Maybe because it's more of a rhetorical flourish than a grammatical structure per se. and I never studied rhetoric.

Now that I know the term, I think I'll start noticing them in ordinary conversation all the time. How often do you say something like, "Well, you know what she really wants is..." instead of simply "She wants..."

Jim B.

Jim B.

Former Writer

Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own...
Learn more
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