Understanding the Meaning of a Cleft Sentence

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

cleft sentence
Clefts are "grammatically complex and pragmatically nuanced," note Brittain and MacKenzie, "but the 'core' meaning of a cleft sentence is no different from that of the corresponding simple sentence" ("Translating Algonquian Oral Texts" in Born in the Blood, 2011). (JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

In English grammar, a cleft is a construction in which some element in a sentence is moved from its normal position into a separate clause to give it greater emphasis. A cleft is also known as a cleft sentence, a cleft construction, and a cleft clause.

"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."

Take, for example, the simple declarative sentence, "Jerry went to the movie yesterday." If you would want to emphasize one element or another, the sentence could be rewritten several different ways:

  • It was Jerry who went to the movie yesterday.
  • It was to the movie that Jerry went yesterday.
  • It was yesterday that Jerry went to the movie. 

English has many different varieties of cleft constructions, but the two major types are it-clefts and wh-clefts. Wh- clefts use "wh" words, which is most often "what" in the construction. However, why, where, how, etc. are also possibilities.

Examples and Observations


  • It was only last month that I decided to go back to school.
  • "It was my father who sent Dyer out to proselyte. It was my father who had the blue-ice eye and the beard of gold."
  • "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."


    • "What I needed was a weapon. Other people, hitchhikers, told me they always carried a little something, a knife or a can of Mace, and I'd laughed, thinking there was no greater weapon than the human mind. You idiot."
    • "Strange, but what I really wanted was a dad who would come down to the police station, ​yell his head off, and then take me home to talk about what happened, to come up with a new plan for how I'd act in the future, etc. All the other guys had that. But not me. My dad left me alone in jail for the night."


      Douglas Biber et al., Longman Student Grammar. Pearson, 2002

      George N. Crocker, Roosevelt's Road to Russia. Regnery, 1959

      David Crystal, Making Sense of Grammar. Longman, 2004

      Zane Gray, Riders of the Purple Sage, 1912

      Sidney Greenbaum, Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1996

      David Sedaris, Naked. Little, Brown & Company, 1997

      Michael Simmons, Finding Lubchenko. Razorbill, 2005

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      Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the Meaning of a Cleft Sentence." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-is-cleft-sentence-1689851. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, February 28). Understanding the Meaning of a Cleft Sentence. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-cleft-sentence-1689851 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the Meaning of a Cleft Sentence." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-cleft-sentence-1689851 (accessed March 23, 2018).