Cleft sentences in English

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Cleft sentence
Cleft sentence

This lesson will help us understand what a cleft sentence is in English, why do we use it, and how we can form a cleft sentence.

What is a cleft sentence?

A cleft sentence focuses on one part of a sentence. It adds the part that is already known or understood to a part that is not known to the listener. A cleft sentence is a way to add focus on what’s more important to us. Here, in cleft sentences, a single idea is divided into two parts where the focus is placed on one element.

In a cleft sentence, the information is divided into two parts:

a) one that is already known to the listeners and is less important to us
b) and the other that is not known or is new to the listeners and is what the speaker wants to focus on

In a cleft sentence, the information is formed in a different way from its original structure. The part that is focused here is moved from its original place.

Cleft sentence infographic

It can be any element that the speaker focuses on and separates in a cleft sentence. Let’s study some examples.

Monica took 1000 dollars from a beggar last night.

Cleft sentence: It was Monica who took 1000 dollars from a beggar last night. (The focus is on the subject Monica)
Cleft sentence: It was 1000 dollars that Monica took from the beggar last night. (The focus is on the object)
Cleft sentence: It was a beggar whom Monica took 1000 dollars from last night. (The focus is on the object of the preposition)
Cleft sentence: It was last night when Monica took 1000 dollars from a beggar. (The focus is on the time of the action (adverb))

Simple sentence (non-cleft): Rahul stole my car last night.

Now, if we want to focus on one part of the sentence, let’s say the subject (Rahul), we will have to use a cleft sentence. We can write the above sentence in the following way:

Cleft sentence: It was Rahul who stole my car last night.

Now, the focus is on Rahul, the original sentence. This is an example of a cleft sentence. A cleft sentence is usually constructed in the following two ways:

  • It (pseudo pronoun) + to be form of verb + X + dependent clause
  • Dependent clause starting with WH words + to be form of verb + X

In the first structure, X (the element that the speaker focuses on) is generally a noun or a noun pronoun. It can be a prepositional phrase, adverbial or adjectival phrase. In the second structure, the element the speaker focuses on comes after a to be form of a verb (linking verb).

Examples:

  • It was Jon who supported me in my tough times.
  • It was your brother Allen who came up with this idea.
  • It is Tina whom I am dating.
  • What I want from you is your support.
  • Who I really want to thank is you.
  • What I want for my birthday is a new bike.

Conversation 1:

Muskaan: I think Smriti paid for your college fee. Didn’t he?
Jon (Cleft sentence): No, it is Rahul who paid for my college fee.
Normal sentence: Rahul paid for your college fee.

Understood or common information: Somebody paid your college fee
New or focus information: Rahul did the action

Here, the part ‘the college fee is paid by someone’ is understood. The speaker has used a cleft structure to focus on the part (person) that’s not known to the listener.

Conversation 2:

Mom: I am elated today.
Ashu: Why, mom? What’s going on?
Mom: We are having Chinese food in the evening. It is my favorite.
Ashu: No, mom, It is Italian food that we are having in the evening. Papa confirmed that a few minutes ago.

Here, Chinese food is the object of the verb ‘having’. Ashu, in the last line, uses a cleft structure to focus on the object. If he didn’t want to put additional emphasis on the object, the sentence would be written as: We are having Italian food in the evening. In the cleft, he deliberately put emphasis on the object, which was a new piece of information for the listener (Mom).

Conversation 3:

Alex: Someone saved your sister from falling into a pot.
John: It was my friend Anoop who did that.

The focus is on the part highlighted (bold). The rest is understood and taken from the previous statement.

Conversation 4:

Maxwell: I spoke to your father yesterday.
Smith: It was my uncle (who) you spoke to.

Conversation 5:

Raj: Sneha was waiting for someone at the party.
Danish: It was you who she was waiting for at the party.

Note: you can end the sentence at the part that you focus on as the rest is already known.

Ex – It was you.

Types of cleft sentences

There are two types of common cleft sentences in English:

  1. Using the psuedo subject ‘IT’
  2. Using the WH words
  3. Reverse pseudo cleft
  4. Using the word ‘ALL’

Cleft sentences with pseudo IT db2424

Using a pseudo pronoun ‘it’ is the most common way to form a cleft sentence. IT cleft sentences are usually used to correct information and focus on the newly added information.

Structure:

Normal: Subject + verb phrase + object (X) + other part (optional)
Cleft: It + to be verb + object (X) + adjective clause (that/who/whom + subject + verb phrase)

Examples:

Non-cleft: Jon supported me in my tough times.
Cleft: It was Jon who supported me in my tough times.

Non-cleft: An old farmer from Kerala created a machine that changes trash cans into running shoes.
Cleft: It was an old man from Kerala who created a machine that changes trash cans into running shoes.

Non-cleft: I am looking forward to meeting Conor the most.
Cleft: It is meeting Conor that I am looking forward to the most.

Non-cleft: I couldn’t join you because I was ill.
Cleft: It was because I was ill that I couldn’t join you.

Using a pseudo pronoun ‘it’ is the most common way to form a cleft sentence. The focus of the cleft can be the following in the structure:

  • Subject
  • Object of a verb
  • Object of a preposition
  • Adverbial

1. Cleft focusing on the SUBJECT

Situation 1:

I think Smriti paid for your college fee. Didn’t he?
Normal sentence: Rahul paid for your college fee.
Cleft sentence: It is Rahul who paid for my college fee.

Understood or common information: Somebody paid for your college fee
New or focus information: Rahul did the action

Here, the part ‘the college fee is paid by someone’ is understood. The speaker has used a cleft structure to focus on the part (person) that’s not known to the listener.


Situation 2:

Didn’t Simran call your father last night?
Cleft: No, it was Manisha who called my father last night.

Normal sentence: Manisha called my father last night.


Situation 3:

Ashish: iPhone 11 has been awarded as the best smartphone in 2021.
Max: That’s not correct. It is the iPhone 13 that’s been awarded as the best smartphone in 2021. (cleft)


Situation 4:

Charu: IIM Indore produces the best HR managers, according to a report.
Monica: That’s amazing.
Ankit: That’s not necessarily true. It is IIM Ahmedabad that does it. (cleft)

The last sentence is a cleft sentence. The information that is new and Ankit focuses on (X) is highlighted by dividing the sentence into two parts. The clause that follows X (Ankit) refers to the same information that’s been provided by Charu already. So. ‘that does it’ here means ‘that produces the best HR managers’.

2. Cleft focusing on the OBJECT

The focus part (X) can be the object of the verb too. Let’s look at some examples where cleft sentences are used to focus on the object of the verb.

Situation 1:

Mom: I am elated today.
Ashu: Why, mom? What’s going on?
Mom: We are having Chinese food in the evening. It is my favorite.
Ashu: No, mom, It is Italian food that we are having in the evening. Papa confirmed that a few minutes ago.

Here, Chinese food is the object of the verb ‘having’. Ashu, in the last line, uses a cleft structure to focus on the object. If he didn’t want to put additional emphasis on the object, the sentence would be written as: We are having Italian food in the evening. In the cleft, he deliberately put emphasis on the object, which was a new piece of information for the listener (Mom).


Situation 2:

Aarushi: Who are you dating, Ashish?
Ashish: No one.
Aarushi: Hey, come on. I know you are dating someone. Please tell.
Ashish: It is Megha who I am dating. Please don’t share this with anyone.

Aarushi, here, specifically wants to focus on the object (person) of the verb ‘dating’. And since I want to focus on the name, the cleft has been used. Also note that when the object of a verb is a person, who/whom/that can be used to refer to it.

It is Megha whom I am dating.
It is Megha who I am dating.
It is Megha that I am dating.

3. Cleft focusing on the OBJECT OF A PREPOSITION

Situation 1:

A: You looked upset at the party. Were you still upset with us?
B: I wasn’t upset with you all. It was my brother Alex whom I was upset with.


Situation 2:

Tom: You think about Mary anymore. She doesn’t deserve it.
Sam: I am not. It’s her sister (whom) I’m thinking about right now. She got wronged in this.


Situation 3:

Laura: Rahul will be performing with my sister Naura at the party. They look great together.
Jon: It is Maria who he will be performing with. He told me this himself.

4. Cleft focusing on an ADVERBIAL

An adverbial can be the focus of a cleft sentence. Let’s look at some examples.

Examples:

Non-cleft: He came to see us the day before yesterday.
Cleft: It was the day before yesterday when he came to see us.

Non-cleft: I will call you tomorrow.
Cleft: It is tomorrow when I will call you.

Non-cleft: They are buying a house in London.
Cleft: It is In London that they are buying a house.
or
Cleft: It is London where they are buying a house.

If the adverbial (time) is a noun phrase, we use the conjunction ‘when’ after it. But if a prepositional phrase, use the conjunction ‘that’ after it.

NOTE: The verb (to be) of the pseudo subject (IT) needs to be singular even if the focus point (X) is plural.

Examples:

  • It is my friends who motivate me to pursue my dream.
  • It was your colleagues who saved you from getting fired.

WH cleft sentences (pseudo cleft)

These are cleft sentences that start with WH family words, usually the word ‘WHAT’. These sentences usually answer a question. Note that these cleft sentences usually start with the conjunction ‘what’.

Structure: WH clause (known information) + to be verb + X (focus part)

Examples:

Question: What do you want from me?
Cleft: What I want is your support.
Non-cleft: I want your support.

Non-cleft: We want to get a job right now.
Cleft: What we want right now is to get a job.

Non-cleft: I needed a safe house to stay.
Cleft: What I needed was a safe house to stay.

Non-cleft: I loved the food the most at the party.
Cleft: What I loved the most at the party was the food.

Non-cleft: He wrote his resignation letter and threw it at his employer’s face.
Cleft: What happened was that he wrote his resignation letter and threw it at his employer’s face.

More examples:

  • What I want right now is a person who I can trust.
  • What she really wants is your money.
  • What I am saying is that I can’t work with anymore.
  • What I said to him was that you don’t deserve this job.

Other WH cleft sentences

Non-cleft: Sam used to live in a deserted village.
Cleft: Where Sam used to live was a deserted village.

Non-cleft: I reached home at 2 am.
Cleft: When I reached home was 2 am.

Non-cleft: We do this job because we love it.
Cleft: Why we do this job is because we love it.

Non-cleft: We want to hire your brother.
Cleft: Who we want to hire is your brother.

Reverse pseudo sentences

In reverse-pseudo cleft sentences, the focus is placed at the beginning, unlike the other cleft sentences.

Structure: X (focus point) + to be verb + WH clause

Cleft: What I gifted him was a racing car.
Reverse cleft: A racing car is what I gifted him.

Cleft: We need your support.
Reverse cleft: Your support is what we need.

Cleft: What I have been looking for is a tech guy.
Reverse cleft: A tech guy is what I have been looking for.

Cleft: What he is asking for the project is 2 crores.
Reverse cleft: 2 crores is what he is asking for.

Here, the clause that comes after the main verb (to be) is a noun clause. It works as the subject complement.

Cleft sentences using the word ALL

Here, the conjunction what is replaced with all. A cleft sentence starting with all makes the sentence more emphatic.

Examples:

Non-cleft: I just want skilled people to make this a successful product.
Cleft: All I want to make this a successful product is skilled people.

Non-cleft: We just want your support right now.
Cleft: All we want right now is your support.

Non-cleft: We just need love in life.
Cleft: All we need in life is love.

Non-cleft: I am thinking about your family.
Cleft: All I am thinking about is your family.

NOTE: Here, the word ‘only’ is implicitly used in the ‘all cleft sentences‘, and the word ‘all’ can be replaced with the phrase ‘the only thing’. Using this phrase makes the sentence more emphatic. Here are some examples:

Examples:

All we were looking for was your performance.
The only thing we were waiting for was your performance.

All they gave me in exchange for the phone was a cheap camera.
The only they gave me in exchange for the phone was a cheap camera.

All I am asking for is your time.
The only thing I am asking is your time.

All I did was give her my laptop, and she started crying.
The only thing I did was give her my laptop, and she started crying.

All I did was look at her, and they threw me out of the class.
The only thing I did was look at her, and they threw me out of the class.

In this sentence, we are focusing on the verb. The sentence wants to say that they didn’t do much. Here, the cleft structure is used to focus on the fact that the verb didn’t have much involvement in the outcome.

Practice set!

SET 1

Change these normal sentences into ‘if sentences’ focusing on the subject.

  1. Jon brought that gift for me.
  2. Your father is leading this case.
  3. My book is considered one of the best books for learning English.

Answers:

  • It was Jon who brought that gift for me.
  • It is your father who is leading this case.
  • It is my book that is considered one of the best books for learning English.

SET 2

Change these normal sentences into ‘if sentences’ focusing on the direct object.

  1. I need your laptop right now.
  2. They called my sister Anna for the role.
  3. She betrayed me, not you.

Answers:

  • It is your laptop I need right now.
  • It was my sister Anna who they called for the role.
  • It was her who she betrayed, not you.

SET 3

Change these normal sentences into ‘if sentences’ focusing on an adverbial.

  1. They called me a few minutes ago to show up.
  2. She ran away with all the money last night.
  3. They hid the bag in their apartment.

Answers:

  • It was a few minutes ago when they called me to show up.
  • It was last when when she ran away with all the money.
  • It was in their apartment that they hid the bag.

SET 4

Change these normal sentences into ‘WH cleft sentences’ focusing on the direct object.

  1. I need your laptop right now.
  2. They called my sister Anna for the role.
  3. I just had a small apple in the morning.
  4. Jonas gave me a diamong watch.

Answers:

  • What I need right now is your laptop.
  • Who they called for the role was my sister Anna.
  • What I had in the morning was a small apple.
  • What Jonas gave me in the morning was a diamong watch.

SET 5

Change these normal sentences into ‘reverse cleft sentences’ focusing on the direct object.

  1. I need your laptop right now.
  2. They called my sister Anna for the role.
  3. I just had a small apple in the morning.
  4. Jonas gave me a diamong watch.

Answers:

  1. Your laptop is what I need right now.
  2. My sister was who they called for the role.
  3. A small apple was what I had in the morning.
  4. A diamond watch was what Jonas gave me.

SET 6

Change these normal sentences into ‘ALL cleft sentences’ focusing on the direct object.

  1. I need your laptop right now.
  2. I just had a small apple in the morning.
  3. Jonas gave me a diamong watch.

Answers:

  • All I need right now is your laptop.
  • All I had in the morning was a small apple.
  • All Jonas gave me in the morning was a diamong watch.

FAQs

What is a cleft sentence in grammar?

A cleft sentence is a mechanism of focusing on one specific element of the sentence. The element we focus on in a cleft structure is information that is new to your listener, and we often build it up to make the sentence more emphatic. The most common type of a cleft sentence is an IT CLEFT sentence. Here is the structure: It + to be verb + focus information + relative clause

Examples:

Non-cleft: Your own brother stole your car.
Cleft: It was your own brother who stole your car.

Other cleft sentences

Non-cleft: We wanted your support.
Cleft: All we wanted was your support.

Non-cleft: I want a house to live in.
Cleft: What I want is a house to live in.

What is an example of a cleft sentence?

Non-cleft: The company is looking for some good coders.
Cleft: It is some good coders the company is looking for.

Non-cleft: The company is looking for some good coders.
Cleft: What the company is looking for is some good coders.

Non-cleft: The company is looking for some good coders.
Cleft: All the company is looking for is some good coders.

What is cleft in syntax?

In linguistics, A cleft is a construction where the writer/speaker puts focus on one part of a sentence by breaking it into two parts: one that is already known and the other that is new (what the speaker focuses on to make the sentence emphatic).

Non-cleft: She wants your money.
Cleft: What she wants is your money.

How do you write a cleft sentence?

There are a few ways to write a cleft construction in English. The most common one is an IT CLEFT STRUCTURE:
IT (pseudo subject) + to be form of a verb + X (the focus part) + relative clause. The focus part (X) is usually a noun/noun phrase, but it can be an adverbial either.

Examples:
1. It is you who should be blamed for this loss.
2. It was a beggar who won the lottery.
3. It was after the match that they came to see us.

What are the types of cleft sentences?

Here are the most common types of cleft sentences in English:

1. IT CLEFT sentence
2. WHAT cleft sentence
3. REVERSE cleft sentence
4. ALL cleft sentence

Non-cleft: She wants your money.

1. It is your money that she wants.
2. What she wants is your money.
3. Your money is what she wants.
4. All she wants is your money.

Hope now you feel more comfortable and confident about this concept. Feel free to share the post with others to spread the word.

Cleft sentences masterclass

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