Cleft Sentences


There are several ways to add emphasis (focus) to parts of your sentences in English by changing the word orderCleft sentences are one way to add emphasis to what we want to say.

The word "cleft" means divided or split.

A cleft sentence is a sentence in which some part is moved from its normal position into a different place to give it more emphasis.

For example, instead of saying:

Joe ate the cake.

A man takes the cake

We could say:

It was Joe who ate the cake.

This puts the emphasis on the word Joe. This is a cleft sentence.

Cleft sentences are used in spoken and written English, but they are more common in written English.

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All English Tenses

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All Tenses



Cleft sentences help us focus on a certain part of a sentence to add emphasis to what we want to say. We use cleft sentences to to connect what is already understood to what is new to the listener. Cleft sentences let us focus on the new information.
 
Cleft sentences are more common in written English because we cannot use intonation in written English. (Intonation is the rise and fall in the pitch of your voice when speaking.)

man writing

Cleft comes from the verb to cleave, meaning to divide into two.
 
Cleft sentences are divided into two clauses. Each clause has its own verb.
 
There are different types of cleft sentences. The most common types are the IT sentence patterns and the WH sentence patterns. We will focus on these two types of cleft sentence patterns in this lesson.

Cleft Sentences
 

IT cleft sentences

This is the basic pattern of an IT cleft sentence:
 
It + be verb + subject, object, etc

+ that/who relative clause

  • It was the boys who started the fight.

  • It is rain that cancels parades.

  • It is the secretary that I wish to thank.

  • It was my mother who taught me to love.
mother and son
 
You can use other pronouns in place of "it" to make cleft sentences.
  • Those were my books that you borrowed.

  • That is my pencil that you broke.

  • There is the guitar that I want to purchase.
guitar 

We use cleft sentences to to connect what is already understood to what is new to the listener. Cleft sentences let us focus on the new information.
 

Examples:

– You met my teacher, Mr. Jones, didn't you?

– No, it was Mrs. Smith that I met.

 
In the second sentence, the focus is on the new information: 
Mrs. Smith.

The understood information (old information) is at the end: I met your teacher.

man talking to teacher
 


– I borrowed someone's books.

– Those were my books that you borrowed.

 

Focus (new information): my books

Understood (old) information: You borrowed someone's books

man carrying books
 


– You called me on Monday, didn't you?

– It was Tuesday that I called you.

 

Focus (new information): Tuesday

Understood (old information): I called you

lady with calendar

 
In informal situations, we sometimes leave out "that" in cleft sentences.

Examples:

  • It was Mrs. Smith that I met.

    It was Mrs. Smith I met.

  • Those were my books that you borrowed.

    Those were my books you borrowed.
     
  • It was Tuesday that I called you.

    It was Tuesday I called you.
 

Cleft sentences can also be negative sentences.

Examples:

  • It wasn't Mr. Jones that I met.

  • It was not those boys who started the fight.

  • It wasn't Monday that I called you.

  • That is not the guitar that I wanted to purchase.

  • Those were not my books you borrowed.
 
 books


WH cleft sentences (pseudo cleft sentences)

WH cleft sentences are also sometimes called pseudo cleft sentences.
 
In pseudo-cleft sentences, the emphasis (focus) is usually at the end of the sentence.

This is the basic structure of a WH (pseudo) cleft sentence.
 
What clause + be verb + emphasized word or phrase
 
These cleft sentences begin with WH words such as what, why, where and the words all, the thing, something, one thing.

In WH cleft sentences, the understood (old) information is at the beginning of the sentence rather than the end of the sentence. The focus (new information) is at the end of the sentence.

Examples: 

– What do you need?

– What I need is something to drink.

 
In the second sentence, the focus is on the new information: I need something to drink.

The understood information (old information) is at the beginning: I need something.

empty cup
 

– What do you want?

– The one thing I want is to be rich.

 
Focus (new information): I want to be rich

Understood (old information): I want something

man with money
 

– What do you want for Christmas?

– All I want for Christmas is you.

 
Focus (new information): I want you

Understood (old information): I want something for Christmas
 
Christmas tree
 

More pseudo cleft sentences (WH clefts):
  • What I need now is a cup of tea.

  • The first thing I notice about people is their smiles.

  • What's really important to me is my family.

  • All she was trying to do was earn his respect.

  • The one thing I love the most is ice cream.
 ice cream


Modal verbs in cleft sentences

Modal verbs can also be used in cleft sentences to add emphasis.

Examples:

  • It might be my phone that you hear ringing.

  • It must have been his mother who taught him how to grow sunflowers.

  • It may have been my fault that the plant died.

  • It could have been Mrs. Smith that I met.

  • What I need now might be a cup of tea.

  • What's really important to me should be my family.

  • The one thing I love the most may be ice cream.

  • The first thing I notice about people could be their smiles.
 smile

 

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