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They’re formed when you break an ordinary sentence into two pieces to foreground a particular part of it, as in Mr. Rogers’s “It’s you I like,” which contrasts with the non-cleft version, “I like you.” They mean essentially the same thing, but (as the song makes clear) the former emphasizes that it’s you the person (not your hair or your clothes) that Mr. Rogers likes.
Cleft sentences follow a set pattern: It is X that/who/which Y. The part that goes in the X slot is typically a noun phrase, but it can also be a prepositional phrase, an adverbial phrase, or even certain types of clauses. Notice how the emphasis shifts when we put different parts of a sentence in that slot:
Non-cleft: Eleanor was killed in a freak shopping-cart accident in Arizona.
Cleft: It was Eleanor who was killed in a freak shopping-cart accident in Arizona.
Cleft: It was in a freak shopping-cart accident in Arizona that Eleanor was killed.
Cleft: It was in Arizona that Eleanor was killed in a freak shopping-cart accident.
The dependent clause in a cleft sentence is a type of relative clause, but it works a little differently from typical relative clauses. Compare these two conversations:
Jane: “Didn’t Diane use to be your boss?”
Bob: “No, it was Cindy who used to be my boss.”
Jane: “Who was that?”
Bob: “It was Cindy, who used to be my boss.”
The relative clause in a cleft sentence is always restrictive, while a similar-looking non-cleft relative clause might be nonrestrictive. The stress also lands in very different places: in a cleft sentence, it falls heavily on the foregrounded element in the first part, giving it extra emphasis.
A cleft sentence can easily be turned back into a non-cleft sentence by taking the two pieces out of the cleft structure and putting them back together, which may require swapping the order if the foregrounded element was something other than the subject. Thus It’s Siamese cats that John likes best becomes John likes Siamese cats best. If you have something that looks like a cleft sentence but that can’t be turned back into a non-cleft, then it’s most likely some other type of relative clause or noun clause.
Another construction called a pseudo-cleft works in similar ways, but with some key differences. While a cleft sentence follows the pattern It is X that Y, a pseudo-cleft turns it into What X is Y, as in “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” A pseudo-cleft uses the fused relative pronoun what (which packs a relative pronoun and its antecedent together in one word) rather than that/who/which, and it puts the emphasis at the end rather than at the beginning like a cleft sentence.
You can also flip a pseudo-cleft around to make a reverse pseudo-cleft sentence (now there’s a term to impress your coworkers!), as in Love is what the world needs now. Notice that the reverse pseudo-cleft puts the emphasis back at the beginning.
One odd feature of pseudo-cleft sentences is that they can’t always be turned back into non-pseudo-cleft sentences. What I need is a good long nap is easily turned into I need a good long nap, but What I like about my car is that it gets good gas mileage can’t turn into I like about my car that it gets good gas mileage. You’d have to say I like that my car gets good gas mileage or break it into two clauses: My car gets good gas mileage; I like that about it.
Cleft and pseudo-cleft sentences provide a great way to mix up your sentence structure and put special emphasis on a particular part of a sentence. In other words, what cleft and pseudo-cleft sentences do is give you greater expressive power.