'it'-cleft (sentence)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

it cleft definition
The basic structure of the it-cleft in English.

In English grammar, an "it"-cleft is a construction in which a single clause has been split into two sections, each with its own verb. Also called a cleft sentence.

An it-cleft begins with nonreferential it (the "cleft pronoun"), which is typically followed by a copula (i.e., a form of the verb be), a noun phrase, and a relative clause.

Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Her parents never visited her in Montreal. It was her mother that always came up with excuses."
    (Eva Stachniak, Necessary Lies. Dundurn, 2000)
  • "It was Mary who fed the few hens and looked for their eggs, so often laid in strange places, rather than in the nest. It was Mary who took care of the hive, and who never feared the bees. It was Mary again, who, when more active duties were done, would draw a low stool toward the hearth in winter or outside the cottage door in summer, and try to make or mend her own simple garments, singing to herself in Welsh, a verse or two of the old-fashioned metrical version of the Psalms, or repeating texts which she had picked up and retained in her quick, eager little brain."
    (Mary Ropes, Mary Jones and Her Bible, 1882)
  • "[I]t was in the principate of Tiberius Caesar that their druids and prophets and healers of this type were abolished."
    (Pliny, Natural History. Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook, ed. by Daniel Ogden. Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • "Before he took his hot bath, Charles Waterton went to Philadelphia . . .. It was here that Wilson's American Ornithology had been published. It was here that Audubon fell out with the scientific establishment. It was here that William Cobbett opened his bookshop and defied the patriot press by selling pictures of the English nobility. It was here that the American government had its headquarters after the Declaration of Independence. It was here that the American constitution itself was devised. And it was here that Charles Waterton had his portrait painted by the man who made George Washington's false teeth."
    (Brian W. Edginton, Charles Waterton. Lutterworth Press, 1996)
  • New Information and Given Information
    "In an it-cleft construction, the clefted phrase presents new information, while the rest of the sentence is given information. Thus, the information question in 1 below can be answered with 2, in which the answer to the question (that is, the new information) is clefted, but it can't be answered with 3 because the clefted element is not the requested new information.
    1. Who did Stan see at the party?
    2. It was Nick that Stan saw at the party.
    3. *It was Stan who saw Nick at the party.
    That the part of the sentence following that/who in a cleft sentence presents given information is illustrated by the fact that it can refer to something just mentioned in the previous sentence. In the following example, the second sentence contains a cleft construction in which the elements following that are simply repeated from the previous sentence in the discourse.
    Alice told me that Stan saw someone at the party that he knew from his high school days. It turns out it was Nick that Stan saw at the party.
    Clearly, the element following the that in a cleft sentence represents given information."
    (Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • Functions of It-Clefts
    "The main function of the it-cleft is to mark contrastive focus. The contrast is very often implicit, as in Tuesday (not another day), the women, not the men; but the contrast may be made explicit, as in It's the person, not the business, who is registered for VAT.
    "A different, non-contrastive use, is illustrated in the following sentence from Huxley's work: (1) It was in 1886 that the German pharmacologist Louis Lewin published the first systematic study of the cactus, to which his own name was subsequently given. The function here is not to contrast 1886 with a different date. Rather, the function of such clefts, which often highlight expressions of time or place, is to signal the beginning of an episode in discourse. It may be the very beginning of the text, as in (1), or an oral announcement, (2); otherwise, the cleft may signal a shift to a new episode (3): (2) It is with great pleasure that I announce the name of this year's winner . . .
    (3) It was only years later that I realised what he meant." (Angela Downing, English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006)
  • Using It-Clefts to Create Dramatic Openings
    "Tell students that it-clefts are sometimes used to begin paragraphs that present a historical perspective. Choose an it-cleft that begins such a paragraph, and show students . . . how the sentence would look in its regular word order. For example, show the sentence in (67). (67) Henry Ford gave us the weekend just about 90 years ago. On September 25, 1926, in a somewhat shocking move for that time, he decided to establish a 40-hour work week, giving his employees two days off instead of one. Then show students the it-cleft version of the sentence: It was just about 90 years ago that Henry Ford gave us the weekend. Point out that this version emphasizes the time phrase just about 90 years ago and also finishes up with the information the paragraph is going to be about--Henry Ford's introducing the 40-hour work week and hence, the weekend. Compared to the first version, it provides a more dramatic opening and leads more effectively into the rest of the paragraph."
    (Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
  • It-Clefts in Irish-English
    "[T]he it-cleft construction . . . is quite common in Hiberno English . . ..
    "In the following example [from the play Translations by Brian Friel] Doalty uses an it-cleft construction because he wants to emphasize the fact that Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator, uses Irish and not English when he talks with people as a politician. . . .
    Dolaty: It is Irish he uses when he is traveling around scrounging votes."
    (Alberto Álvarez Lugrís et al., A Identidade Galega E Irlandesa a Través Dos Textos: Galician and Irish Identity Through Texts. Univ. de Santiago de Compostela, 2005)
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Nordquist, Richard. "'it'-cleft (sentence)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/it-cleft-sentence-term-1691086. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). 'it'-cleft (sentence). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/it-cleft-sentence-term-1691086 Nordquist, Richard. "'it'-cleft (sentence)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/it-cleft-sentence-term-1691086 (accessed February 7, 2023).