Grammar: cleft and pseudo-cleft sentences

One of my former students would like to brush up on her knowledge of cleft sentences and pseudo-cleft sentences. Well, here's some information about them:

A cleft sentence is a sentence which has been divided into two parts, each with its own verb, to emphasize a particular piece of information. The first sentence begins with It plus the corresponding form of the verb to be, followed by the element which is being emphasized, and the second is generally a that-relative clause. For example, the sentence My brother married Alice in Oxford in 1999 can be turned into the following cleft sentences:

It was Alice that my brother married (in Oxford in 1999)

It was my brother that married Alice (in Oxford in 1999)
It was in Oxford that my brother married Alice (in 1999)
It was in 1999 that my brother married Alice (in Oxford)

If the antecedent is a person, who is sometimes used instead of that:

It was my brother who married Alice

It's my wife who drives the children to school

When there is a what-clause which emphasizes the action itself, we have a pseudo-cleft sentence:

You need love becomes what you need is love

If there is an infinitive, to is optional:

You've spoilt everything becomes What you've done is (to) spoil everything

All is used instead of what when the meaning is the only thing that:

The only thing I did was (to) drink a couple of beers becomes All I did was (to) drink a couple of beers.

Pseudo-cleft sentences headed by where or when are sometimes found:

Where the boss has his office is on the second floor
When I am most tired is in the evening

but, in pseudo-cleft sentences with where or when, the wh-clause  is more usually found as subject complement:

Here is where the accident took place
This is where I work
Spring is when the countryside is most beautiful

Although they are not very common, some pseudo-cleft sentences with who or how are sometimes found:

Who I mean is the chief inspector or, more commonly, The chief inspector is who I mean
How he talked is with a Scottish accent or, more commonly, With a Scottish accent is how he talked


* Build up cleft sentences emphasizing the element in italics:

a- I met my wife in Paris

b- We were married in September
c- Bruno reported us to the police
d - The manager himself wants to speak to you
e - Benidorm is a nice place for a holiday, but I'm going to Marbella this summer
f - My left leg hurts, not the right one

** Turn the following sentences into pseudo-cleft sentences, headed by the word in brackets:

a - You need a good cup of tea (what)

b - I'll write a letter to The Times (what)
c - I liked best her performance (what)
d - I only drank a couple of pints with my colleagues (all)



a - It was in Paris that I met my wife
b - Ii was in September that we were married
c - It was Bruno who/that reported us to the police
d - It's the manager himself who/that wants to speak to you
e - Benidorm is a nice place for a holiday, but it's to Marbella that I'm going this summer
f  - It's my left leg that hurts, not the right one


a - What you need is a good cup of tea
b - What I'll do is (to) write a letter to The Times
c - What I liked best was her performance
d - All I did was (to) drink a couple of pints with my colleagues.

16 comentarios :

  1. Hello, first of all, my congratulations for this excellent blog, an essential tool for those interested in Shakespeare's mother tongue.

    Now, I have a couple of questions regarding cleft sentences, open for discussion with the rest of the followers of this blog.

    Here goes the first one:

    - Would it not make more sense to use 'where' instead of 'that' in a cleft sentence when the antecedent is a place? To me its use would seem quite natural.
    For example:

    instead of
    It is/was in Paris that they met of the first time,

    why not use: It is/was in Paris where they met for the first time?

    - My sencond question, also referring to this kind of 'split' sentences is regarding the use of a gerund when the antecedent is an activity instead of a (to)infinitive.
    For example:
    instead of using

    What John did yesterday is/was (to) steal a book from the library...

    Why not use: What John did yesterday is/was stealing a book from the library? (the action is finished, and it is also an activity, so why then opt for the (to)infinitive, which also can indicate an unfinished action? e.g.: Remmember to post these letters, will you?)

  2. To your first question, my answer is that 'where' sounds OK to me as an alternative, but then it wouldn't be a cleft sentence proper.
    In the second example you give, the gerund after the verb sounds odd to me and it would even lend itself to misunderstandings, but if you put the gerund as subject at the beginning, it would be acceptable: Stealing a book from the library is what John did yesterday. On the other hand, if the verb in the wh-clause is in the progressive, the use of the gerund is adequate: What I'm doing is playing chess with my PC. Consequently, 'what John was doing yesterday is stealing a book from the library' is quite correct. In any case, we can come to the conclusion that there's a certain flexibility in the use of this sort of sentences, and alternatives are often found.

  3. hello
    I really need your help concerning that sentence:
    Do we say,
    What I need is two books or What I need are two books
    Thanks in advance

    1. What is recommended by grammarians is 'what I need is two books'. However, as Quirk says in his A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, "... what is ambivalent in number, often interpreted as equivalent to either 'the thing that' or 'the things that', so that we also find a plural verb in concord with the subject what-clause", and gives the following example: what we need most are books. But he goes on to say: "Some prescriptive teaching requires the singular both for the verb within the what-clause and for the verb that is in concord with the clause". If you want to know my own opinion, 'What I need is two books' is much more common than 'what I need are two books', which somehow sounds a bit strange to me.

  4. Thank you Sir for your help. I am working on pseudocleft cnstructions for they are known to examplify complex rules.
    Could you help me with some examples on pseudo cleft sentences with 'where'?
    Thank you in advance

  5. Pseudo-cleft sentences are usually constructed with what: what you need is a good rest, what I want is (to) live in peace, etc. Pseudo-clef sentences with who, when and where are acceptable, but only when the wh-clause is subject complement: Spain is where we are going this year for our holidays; this shed is where we keep the pig, here is where the accident took place; this is where I work.

    1. So, this means that it is imossible for a pseudo-cleft sentence to be headed by 'where' as in:
      Where we usually keep cheese is th cellar.
      It seems to me that the examples you gave me are of reversed pseudo-clft sentences and I think that there exist wh-pseudocleft sentences headd by where.

    2. I would not go as far as affirming that pseudo-cleft sentences headed by where do not exist. Language is something alive, and the role of grammars is not to give rules that people have to abide by, but rather to describe the way people really speak. So, I don't deny it would indeed be possible to find someone who says "where we are going this year for our holiday is Spain" or "where we usually keep cheese is the cellar", but you have to admit that sentences such as "where the accident took place is here" or "where I work is this" sound a bit odd, to say the least, and I don't think they are usually found. That must be the reason why eminent linguists like Randolph Quirk or Sidney Greenbaum, for example, affirm, when referring to pseudo-cleft sentences, that "clauses with who, where, and when are sometimes acceptable, but mainly when the wh-clause is subject complement". In any case, I would not like to be rude, but I cannot help asking myself that 'if you already know the answer, what is the point of asking me for advice?¡

    3. Good morning Sir
      If I really knew the answer, I would not have asked for advice.
      I have to admit that I actually seem as knowing the answer, but in fact I do not. I found in many books examples on pseudo-cleft sentencs headed by 'what', 'where' and 'when' and called as such and those like 'this is where I work.' being considered as reversed pseudo-ceft sentences. Since I am preparing a research paper on pseudo-clefts, I needed to test my knowedge and to ban all doubt. I, once again, thank you for your help.

    4. If you are preparing a paper on pseudo-clef sentences, I think it is quiet normal for you to consult as many grammars as possible and quote on your work what they have to say on the subject, provided you always take care to mention their source. However, I think you should bear in mind that different grammarians often use a different terminology and it is impossible to acccept them all as valid. I know that in some grammars the term 'reversed' is used to refer to those pseudo-cleft sentences where the wh-clause is the subject complement, but I chose not to use it myself in my classes, as I thought that rather than help my students it would complicate this grammar point unnecessarily, but of course I understand that your case is different and you should choose for your conclusions the terminology that you judge most appropriate for your analysis. In any case, I will be pleased if my commentaries have been of any help to you one way or another.

  6. Could you explain in simple terms the difference between cleft and pseudo cleft sentences? I'm just beginning my study of linguistics so these concepts are new.

  7. Thank you for these explanations and bright examples. But if you still need more information about this question, you're welcome here link

  8. What about a sentence "Where did you go on last holiday last year? with the emphasis on where.
    Can it be answered this way It was where you went on last holiday last year that concerned me?

  9. If you have to study English but you cannot comprehend in what cases it is necessary to use gerund, this source can make it clear for you once and forever http://royalediting.com/how-to-learn-rules-for-gerund-very-fast