What Is 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. Also known as a cleft sentence, a cleft construction, and a cleft clause.

There are many different varieties of cleft constructions in English, but the two major types are it-clefts and wh-cleftsSee Examples and Observations below.


From the Old English, "to cleave"

Examples and Observations

  • "There are two major types of cleft constructions: it-clefts and wh-clefts.
    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."
    • 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.>
  • It-Clefts
    • 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."
      (Zane Gray, Riders of the Purple Sage, 1912)
    • "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."
  • Wh-Clefts
    • "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."
      (David Sedaris, Naked. Little, Brown & Company, 1997)
    • "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."
  • Cleft Sentences
    "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."
  • Clefted Options
    "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.
  • "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:
    • Not all elements take a clefted focus with equal facility."
      • 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.
      • 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.


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

    George N. Crocker, Roosevelt's Road to Russia. Regnery, 1958

    Michael Simmons, Finding Lubchenko. Razorbill, 2005

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

    David Crystal, Making Sense of Grammar. Longman, 2004

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Cleft Sentence?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-cleft-sentence-1689851. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 11). What Is a Cleft Sentence? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-cleft-sentence-1689851 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Cleft Sentence?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-cleft-sentence-1689851 (accessed January 17, 2018).