What is a cleft sentence and how do we use it?
Cleft sentences are used to help us focus on a particular part of the sentence and to emphasise what we want to say by introducing it or building up to it with a kind of relative clause.
Because there are two parts to the sentence it is called cleft (from the verb cleave) which means divided into two.
Cleft sentences are particularly useful in writing where we cannot use intonation for purposes of focus or emphasis, but they are also frequently used in speech.
Cleft structures include the reason why, the thing that, the person/people who, the place where, the day when and what-clauses which are usually linked to the clause that we want to focus on with is or was.
Compare the following sets of sentences and notice how the cleft structure in each case enables us to select the information we want to focus on:
I’ve come to discuss my future with you.
The reason why I’ve come is to discuss my future with you.
Your generosity impresses more than anything else.
The thing that impresses me more than anything else is your generosity.
The jewels are hidden under the floor at 23 Robin Hood Road, Epping.
The place where the jewels are hidden is under the floor at 23 Robin Hood Road, Epping.
Under the floor at 23 Robin Hood Road is the place where the jewels are hidden.
Mary works harder than anybody else in this organisation.
The person who works harder than anybody else in this organisation is Mary.
Mary is the person in this organisation who works harder than anybody else.
The Second World War ended on 7 May 1945 in Europe.
The day (when) the Second World War ended in Europe was 7 May 1945
7 May 1945 was the day (when) the Second World War ended in Europe.
We now need actions rather than words.
What we now need are actions rather than words.
Actions rather than words are what we now need.
I enjoyed the brilliant music most of all in the Ballet Frankfurt performance.
What I enjoyed most in the Ballet Frankfurt performance was the brilliant music.
The brilliant music was what I enjoyed most in the Ballet Frankfurt performance.
Note from the last two examples that cleft structures with what-clauses are often used with verbs expressing an emotive response to something like adore, dislike, enjoy, hate, like, loathe, love, need, prefer, want, etc.
Cleft structures with what-clauses are also often used with does/do/did and with the verb happen when we want to give emphasis to the whole sentence, rather than a particular clause.
Compare the following:
The police interviewed all the witnesses to the accident first.
What the police did first was (to) interview all the witnesses to the accident.
You should invest all your money in telecoms companies.
What you should do is (to) invest all your money in telecoms companies.
What you should invest all your money in is telecoms companies.
She writes all her novels on a typewriter.
What she does is (to) write all her novels on a type writer.
Their car broke down on the motorway so they didn’t get to Jo’s wedding on time.
What happened was that their car broke down on the motorway so they didn’t get to Jo’s wedding on time.
It is sometimes very effective to use all instead of what in a cleft structure if you want to focus on one particular thing and nothing else:
I want a new coat for Christmas.
All I want for Christmas is a new coat.
A new coat is all I want for Christmas.
I touched the bedside light and it broke.
All I did was (to) touch the bedside light and it broke.
Finally, we can also use preparatory it in cleft sentences and join the words that we want to focus on to the relative clause with that, who or when.
In the example which follows, note how this construction enables us to focus on different aspects of the information, which may be important at the time:
My brother bought his new car from our next-door neighbour last Saturday.
It was my brother who bought his new car from our neighbour last Saturday.
It was last Saturday when my brother bought his new car from our neighbour.
It was a new car that my brother bought from our neighbour last Saturday.
It was our next-door neighbour that my brother bought his new car from last Saturday.
Look out for cleft structures in your reading. They are a very common feature of written English.