Sunday, April 29, 2012

Emphasis - Focussing with cleft sentences

We sometimes use constructions called cleft sentences when we want to focus on a particular part of the sentence. These are used both in written and spoken English.
There are two main types of cleft sentence, it- clefts and what- clefts (and a variation of what-clefts, all-clefts). What- clefts and variations on them are often referred to as pseudo clefts.
Read all about clefts and try some exercises.


What a cleft sentence does is to cleave (split or divide into two) a sentence into two parts in order to emphasise one of the parts (underlined). The part of the sentence we don't want to emphasise is put into a type of relative clause (in dark blue).
Warsaw Will writes this blog. (normal sentence)
  • It's Warsaw Will who writes this blog.
    it-cleft - uses a type of defining relative clause
  • What Warsaw Will does is write this blog.
    wh-cleft - uses a type of nominal relative clause
If we want to emphasise nouns and other parts of a sentence other than finite verbs, we can use an it-cleft.
If we want to emphasise finite verbs or actions, we need to use a wh-cleft.
Update - following a comment from elhamcz I've amended the section on it-clefts a bit, adding a little more information, a bit about pronouns and an additional exercise, on it-cleft structures in questions.

What's a nominal relative clause?

A nominal relative clause is like a defining relative clause, but where the noun and relative pronoun are combined in a nominal relative pronoun, most commonly what. You can find out more about these in my post about nominal relative clauses (link below).
  • This is the thing that connects the brake cable to the brake. (defining relative)
  • This is what connects the brake cable to the brake. (nominal relative)

Emphasis in cleft sentences with it.

By using a cleft sentence with preparatory it, we can emphasise a noun, often in contrast with what has just been said:
  • I like Paris a lot, but it's Marseilles that I like the best.
The basic structure is:
It is / was + emphasised noun phrase + who / that + rest of the sentence
We often use an it-cleft to correct wrong information. When speaking, we stress the emphasised noun phrase. Note that we can stress different parts of the sentence: the subject, the object, a prepositional phrase for example.
  • Jenny has bought a house in London
    • No, it's Sally who/that has bought a house in London.
          (emphasises the subject)
    • No, it's a flat (that) Jenny bought in London.
          (emphasises the object)
  • Jenny went to visit her sister on Wednesday.
    • No, it was on Thursday (that) she went to visit her sister.
          (emphasises an adverbial of time)
    • No, it's in Brighton (that) Jenny has bought a new house.
          (emphasises an adverbial of place)
Notice that the use of pronouns is similar to but not exactly the same as in defining relative clauses:
  • who or that for people
  • that is usually used for things and after prepositional phrases
  • As in defining relative clauses, who and that can be left out when they refer to the object or the object of a preposition.
See the next section for a discussion on words used to introduce the relative clause.

Relative pronouns etc in it-clefts

By far the most common pronoun used to introduce the relative clause part is that, and it is also possible to use who to refer to people. One grammar book suggests that we tend to use that after proper nouns (names), and my own feeling is that we tend to use who after pronouns:
  • It was Paul that gave the game away, wasn't it?
  • It's you who should be apologising, not her.
You will occasionally see other wh-words in it-clefts, but they are rather rare, and you are probably better avoiding them, especially in tests and in writing:
  • which (for things)
    It was his attitude which annoyed me.

    more usual:
    It was his attitude that annoyed me.

  • whose (for possession)
    It wasn't David whose pen you borrowed, you borrowed mine.

    more usual is to use a possessive and that or zero pronoun
    It wasn't David's pen (that) you borrowed, it was mine.

  • whom (very formal, and seen by many as rather old-fashioned and stilted)
    In the end it was Peter whom I asked to be my best man.

    much more natural is to use who, that or perhaps best, nothing.
    In the end it was Peter (that/who) I asked to be my best man.

  • when, where (sometimes used in an informal style, often without a preposition)
    It's Tuesday when they're coming, isn't it?
    It was the Black Swan where I saw you last night, wasn't it?

    When using that or nothing we may need to include a preposition
    It's on Tuesday (that) they're coming, isn't it?
    It was in the Black Swan (that) I saw you last night, wasn't it?

A bit more on it-clefts

In spoken English we often use tag questions after it-clefts:
  • It was you who left the door open, wasn't it?
  • It's tomorrow we're having an extra class, isn't it?
Sometimes we stress is/was rather than the emphasised word, when we want to confirm something we already think is probably true:
  • It was you who left the door open, wasn't it?
  • It is tomorrow we're having an extra class, isn't it?
We use a third person verb after who/that, agreeing with the subject:
  • It's you who has just got into Oxford, isn't it? (one of you - singular)
    It's you children who have hidden my glasses, isn't it? (plural)
We can also use negative structures:
  • It isn't Peter who you should be blaming, but George.
  • It wasn't in Bristol he made his fortune, although that's where he was born.
When the context is clear, we can miss out the relative clause part:
  • A: I wonder who wrote that on the board.
    B: Well, it certainly wasn't me! (who wrote that on the board)
  • A:Do you know when the exhibition starts?
    B: It's on Friday. (that the exhibition starts)
When we emphasise a subject pronoun, we usually use an object pronoun after is/was. In a very formal style, a subject pronoun can be used. If you want to avoid being too informal, you can use a structure with person/one:
  • It's me who does all the cooking. (informal)
    It is I who does all the cooking. (very formal)
    I'm the person/one who does all the cooking. (neutral)
  • It wasn't her who told me. (informal)
    I was not she who told me. (very formal)
    She's not the person/one who told me. (neutral)

Practice with it-clefts

In the it-cleft exercises only that, who and zero pronoun (nothing) are used to introduce the relative clause part.
Exercise 1Rewrite each sentence to emphasise the relevant noun, starting with It was ... - where possible leave out the pronoun.
EG. Susie married Mike. - Not Mike, but Steve
No, it was Steve Susie married.
1. Mike bought her a ring for her birthday. - Not Mike but Steve.
2. He bought her a ring for her birthday. - For their anniversary.
3. He bought the necklace for Susie. - His daughter.
4. He bought a guitar for Rick. - A drum kit.
We can also emphasise parts of the sentence (other than finite verbs), not just nouns. Again when speaking we'd stress the most important word of the stressed phrase.
Exercise 2Rewrite each sentence to emphasise the underlined phrase, starting with It was .... You will need to add that to each sentence. Look carefully at the underlined words in the last two questions.
EG. She liked the smell of hyacinths the best.
It was the smell of hyacinths that she liked the best.
1. He found studying maths most difficult at school.
2. He first heard about it from Pamela.
3. She got the job because she was the best qualified.
4. Mike first met Susie when they were both studying in London.
5. I only realised who he was when he started speaking.
6. I didn't hear about it until yesterday.

Questions with it-clefts

Look at these two questions and their answers:
  • Did you tell James, or did you forget?
    It's OK, I told him.
  • Did you tell Peter, or was it somebody else?
    No, it certainly wasn't me.
In the second example, where you is stressed, and where we mean 'was it you or somebody else?', we often use an it-cleft question structure, stressing the word(s) we want to emphasise:
  • Was it you who / that told Peter?
    I don't know who it was, but it certainly wasn't me.
Notice that the part after who / that is in normal positive form (without do/did in simple teneses) and in the third person.
  • Is it you who's just been promoted? (singular)
    Is it you two who have been making so much noise? (plural)
Exercise 3Rewrite each question to emphasise the underlined word or phrase, starting with Was or Is and including the word given. If it's (-), don't include any relative pronoun. Use contractions where appropriate.
1. Did Shakespeare write Hamlet? (that)
2. Are they coming on Monday? (that)
3. Did you meet your husband in London? (that)
4. Is Isabel your boss? (that's)
5. Do you prefer coffee? (-)
6. Have you just come back from Thailand? (-)
7. Did you put diesel in the car? (-)
8. Have you pinched my pen? (who's)

Emphasis in cleft sentences with what.

What- clefts, also known as pseudo-clefts, have three patterns. In the first, the what-clause is usually in subject position, but it can also be a subject complement, when it is sometimes called a reversed pseudo cleft. (More about them later) Look at these sentences, then at how they are split to make what-clefts.
  • Sally dumped me.
  • I don't like the way she did it.
  • She locked me out of the flat.
  1. To focus on a noun phrase, we split the sentence just before the noun phrase
    what + clause + be + noun phrase

    I don't like the way she did it.
    What I don't like is the way she did it.
    The way she did it is what I don't like. (reversed)

    This pattern is often used with verbs expressing an emotion or want:
    like, love, dislike, hate, enjoy, need, prefer, want, etc.
  2. To focus on an action done by the subject, we split the sentence just before the verb (the action), and add a form of do. Note that we might have to change the form of the verb.
    what + subject + do / does / did etc + be + verb etc

    Sally dumped me.
    What Sally did was (to) dump me.
    Sally had dumped me.
    What Sally had done was (to) dump me.
  3. To focus on the whole event, especially an event outside the subject's control. Here the 'split' comes before the event, in other words the whole sentence.
    what + happen + be + (that) + original sentence

    She locked me out of the flat.
    What happened was (that) she locked me out of the flat.
    She has locked me out of the flat.
    What has happened is (that) she has locked me out of the flat.
Note - we use was with any past tense, including past perfect, and we use is with any present tense, including present perfect.

Emphasis in cleft sentences with all.

We can also use all (meaning the only thing) instead of what in all three of the patterns we use for what-clefts.
  • All I want is a room somewhere. (Wouldn't It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady)
  • All Oliver Twist did was (to) ask for more.
  • All that happened was (that) I broke a vase.

Practice with what-clefts

Exercise 4Fill each gap with ONE suitable word.
1. What I liked most about the movie (1) the music.
2. What she (2) was (3) look for another job.
3. (4) I said (5) that he was a bit late, and he bit my head off.
4. What (6) then (7) that all hell broke loose.
5. All that has happened is (8) the police (9) given me a warning.
6. (10) really annoys me (11) that he's always right.
7. All I (12) (13) to ask for a clean cup, and the waiter went berserk.
8. What (14) happened was that she'd completely forgotten about it.
9. Your attitude is exactly (15) I was wanting to talk to you about.
Exercise 5Rewrite the sentences exactly as in the examples, following the three patterns you've just looked at.
EG. Did you say you wanted me to get some flowers? (flour).
No, what I said was that I wanted you to get some flour.
1. Did she mean that we're to meet her at the cinema? (pick her up from home)
2. Did you think that I was driving you to the shops. (the bus stop)
3. Did he feel he had done the right thing. (could have done better)
4. Did you tell her it was your fault. (your fault)
EG. Did you phone her? (send / a text)
No, what I did was to send her a text.
5. What did you do next? (next / call / police)
6. Did you buy a new laptop? (No / new tablet / instead)
7. What did you do after that? (after that / go / bed)
8. Did you take the bus to work today? (cycle to work)
EG. Tell me what happened. (first / we / have / a row)
What happened first was that we had a row.
9. And so? (next / she / kick / me out)
10. So what did you do? (then / I / had to find / somewhere to stay)
11. Any luck? (a friend / offer / me / his sofa / a few days]
12. And what now? (now / I / have to look / somewhere more permanent)

The main difference between it-clefts and wh-clefts

Look at these sentences:
  • Cezanne's use of colour astonishes the viewer (normal sentence)
  • It is Cezanne's use of colour that astonishes the viewer (it-cleft)
  • What astonishes the viewer is Cezanne's use of colour. (what-cleft)
In an it-cleft, the emphasis is near the beginning of the sentence. In a what-cleft, it's the end of the sentence that takes the emphasis. This is where we often prefer to put new information or a long subject.
  • A group of wild horses galloping through the clearing caught our attention.
  • What caught our attention was a group of wild horses galloping through the clearing.
A what-cleft can also have an announcing function; it is like answering a question we might expect our listener is wondering about. It's often used by a speaker to introduce their talk or lecture.
  • Audience - I wonder what he's going to talk about.
  • Speaker - What I want to talk about today is the state of the economy.

Other wh-clefts

Although what is the by far the most common, we can also in theory use other wh-words in pseudo clefts.
  • What we did was (to) build a treehouse in the garden.
  • Why we did it was so that the children would have somewhere interesting to play.
  • Where we did it was in the big oak tree overlooking the river.
  • How we did it was by first erecting a platform in the tree.
  • When we did it was in the spring, before the leaves grew too much.
But apart from the what-cleft in the first sentence, these clefts starting with a simple wh-word are quite informal, and we usually prefer to use a longer expression instead.
  • why - the reason (why/that) + clause + is/was + focus element
  • where - the place where / that + clause + is/was + focus element
  • when - the day / week / etc when / that + clause + is/was + focus element
  • how - the way that + clause + is/was + focus element
  • We can also use a long expression instead of what.
  • what - the thing /stuff / matter etc that + clause + is/was + focus element
  • Note - we can't start a cleft sentence with who. We need to say:
  • the person / one who ...
These should become clearer in the next exercise.

Grammar trivia

When we use a simple wh-pronoun, we have a nominal relative clause. But when we use a 'long expression', we have a defining relative clause.
  • What we need is a corkscrew. - nominal relative
  • The thing (that) we need is a corkscrew. - defining relative

To-infinitives after do in pseudo clefts

Look at these example sentences from previous sections:
  • What Sally did was (to) dump me.
  • All Oliver Twist did was (to) ask for more.
  • The best thing (that) we can do is (to) forget about it.
When we have a to-infinitive after the verb do in a pseudo cleft sentence we can leave out to. This is almost always done in North American English, and is increasingly the case in British English as well, especially in spoken language.
Exercise 6Complete each gap with one of the words in the box. Where necessary (but only where necessary) add that.
day · person · place · reason · stuff · thing · way ·
1. The you really need to speak to is George, the guy standing by the fire.
2. One I've asked you here today is to talk about last week's sales.
3. The really got my goat was that he never even apologised.
4. The main I want to talk to you is to discuss your future.
5. The it works is that you press this button here and hey presto!
6. The we got married was the happiest day of my life.
7. One I'll never forget is Niagara Falls.
8. The works the best for that is this cleaning jelly.
9. The you need to remember is that he's only a child.
10. The impressed me the most was Silvia; she really knew her stuff.
11. The you need for cleaning oil off your hands is Swarfega.
12. One to get it through the door is to put it on its end.
13. The made the most lasting impression was the Temple of Venus.
14. The works best for me is to write down new words in context.
15. The I admire most is my grandfather.

Reversed pseudo clefts

Sometimes we might want to put the expression we are focussing on at the beginning of the sentence, in which case we can use what is known by linguists and grammarians as a reversed pseudo cleft.
Reversed pseudo clefts are not used as much as normal pseudo clefts, and can sound rather formal, except perhaps for constructions with 'the person' or something similar, which are quite common - see next section.
  • He wanted to buy a new computer game. (normal sentence)
    What he wanted to buy was a new computer game. (pseudo cleft)
    A new computer game is what he wanted to buy. (reversed pseudo cleft)
  • You need to see Diana about that. (normal sentence)
    The person (who / that) you need to see about that is Diana. (pseudo cleft)
    Diana is the person (who /that) you need to see about that. (reversed pseudo cleft)
  • We're leaving early because of the traffic. (normal sentence)
    The reason (why / that) we're leaving early is the traffic. (pseudo cleft)
    The traffic is the reason (why / that) we're leaving early. (reversed pseudo cleft)

The person, one, thing etc

We can also use cleft-like structures with person or one for people:
  • The person who knows all about that is Diana.
  • Diana 's the one (who /that) you need to see about that.
  • You've come to the right person. I'm the one who deals with all that sort of thing.
  • The one (who/that) everybody's been talking about for the job is Spencer.
  • Apparently you're the person (who) I need to see.
  • They're the people who have invited us to dinner next week.
For things and situations, we use thing:
  • The only thing (that) you need (to) bring is yourself.
  • The best thing (that) we can do is (to) forget about it.
  • The first thing (that) you have to do is (to) work out how much you need.
We sometimes make a type of cleft sentence with somebody (or someone) or something. I think this is used to emphasise the whole idea rather than a particular part of the sentence.

Somebody, someone

  • The headmaster believes strongly in discipline. (subject)
    The headmaster is somebody who believes strongly in discipline.
  • I trust her implicitly. (object)
    She is someone (who) I trust implicitly.
  • I find it easy to talk to Pete. (prepositional object)
    Pete is somebody (who) I find it eay to talk to.


  • This kind of music grows on you. (subject)
    This kind of music is something that grows on you.
  • I'll never forget my first trip to Vietnam. (object)
    My first trip to Vietnam is something (that) I'll never forget.
  • I don't want to talk about it. (prepositional object)
    It's something (that) I don't want to talk about.


We can make sentences similar to it-clefts but using this, that, these, those.
  • But this is Diana (who/that) we're talking about. She's not usually like that.
  • Hey, that's my foot (that) you're standing on!
  • These are the people who/that have invited us to dinner next week
  • Are those my boots that are lying over there?
Note - When we can, we usually leave out the pronoun.

This and that meaning here and there.

This and that are often used in this way to replace here and there
  • (On a bus) We get off here
    This is where we get off. (OR Here's where we get off.)
  • (Pointing) The shop is over there.
    That's where the shop is. (OR There's where the shop is.)
The where-clause is a type of nominal relative clause. The next section shows another common type of cleft sentence using nominal relative clause.

th-wh constructions

These are cleft sentences where this / that / these / those + verb be is followed by a nominal relative clause. In these sentences, this, that etc refer back to something that has just been said, or something that you are looking or pointing at or is obvious at the time.
  • A: We really need to leave.
  • B: That's what I've been saying for the last half-hour!
    (= I've been saying for the last half-hour that we need to leave.)
Some more examples:
  • A: Bla, bla, bla ... . B: That's what I've been saying all along.
  • Bla, bla, bla ... .This is why it's so important you're on time.
  • Bla, bla, bla ... .That's how we've been able to stay ahead of the competition.
  • Bla, bla, bla ... .This is when good timing is the key to success.
  • (looking at something) These are just what I was looking for.

Putting it all together

Exercise 7In each of the sentences one of the underlined words or phrases is wrong. Write the number in the first box and the correct word or phrase in the second box. Use contractions where possible and capital letters where necessary.
EG. What (1) surprised me most was when (2) she didn't seem to recognise me, even when (3) I asked her how she was. 2 that
1. Where (1) you went wrong was that (2) you didn't ask the right questions. It was (3) not so much who you ask as (4) what you ask.      
2. All that (1) happened was what (2) they got a ticking off from two policemen, who just happened (3) to be passing at the time.      
3. It was (1) when (2) I was talking to Pete when (3) I noticed that he seemed to be a bit depressed.      
4. One person (1) who could help you is (2) Mandy. That was (3) who I would ask.      
5. It's (1) classical music she (2) says she likes , and (3) I know that what (4) really turns her on is (5) some hard techno.      
6. All I (1) love about her is (2) the way (3) she never gets fazed by anything.      
7. It was (1) only until (2) she finally smiled that (3) I realised she had been having me on all the time.      
8. What (1) we need to do is find (2) more customers. These are (3) what we should be concentrating on doing.      
9. What (1) she did next was (2) to say that it was my fault that we were always late. But it was (3) always her who (4) takes ages to get ready.      
10. The thing (1) to remember is that (2) learning a language properly is a thing (3) that can take a long time.      
Exercise 8Complete each gap with ONE word. Contractions count as one word.
1. Rick you should really speak to.
2. The best would be to have a chat with Rick.
3. The best to talk to would be Rick.
4. Probably I would do is speak to Rick.
5. Rick who deals with this sort of thing.
6. to speak to might be Rick.
7. Rick's the you should speak to.
8. What next is that you go and find Rick.
9. you could consider is having a word with Rick.
10. Why not speak to Rick. what I would do.
11. I advise is that you speak to Rick as soon as possible.
12. Look, here it is. is where Rick has his office.
13. Look at these figures! is why it's so important you speak to Rick.
14. The best to catch Rick is just after lunch.
15. The I would do it is to tell Rick you need his expertise.
Exercise 9Complete the sentences as cleft sentences focussing on the underlined phrases and including any words in bold. After It's, only use that where necessary. Don't use any final punctuation.
1. I really enjoy a long walk in the country.
It's .
What .
(is) A long walk .
(That's) A long walk in the country. .
2. I dislike his rudeness the most.
What .
(what) His rudeness .
It's .
(That's) His rudeness. .
3. His sense of irony makes me laugh.
(what) His .
(That's) His sense of irony. .
It's ..
What .


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  1. Congratulations on your blog!!!! The explanations and exercises are very useful!! In fact, there aren't many sites for advanced students, the majority of websites are aimed at beginners or intermediate students. Kind regards from Argentina!!!!

  2. Thanks for your kind remarks and for joining the list of followers. I had a quick look at your own blog; it looks very interesting and gave me a bit of a chance to practise my Spanish comprehension. I see you like Roald Dahl and so I was wondering if you'd seen my own take on Little Red Riding Hood - Ruddy Wee Hoody, in which I mention and link to his 'revolting tale'.

  3. You saved my life with this post. I had to conduct a corpus research on cleft senteces and could not come up with enough examples of diferent constructions!! :D

  4. There are spelling mistakes in Ex.2, and there is no final punctuation in Ex.4 - so the check doesn't work.

  5. @Anastaiia - Sorry for that and thanks. I couldn't see any actual spelling mistakes in Ex 2, but two answers didn't start with capitals and I've fixed that. Was that what you meant?

    I've also added end punctuation to Ex 4.

    Thanks again for pointing that out.

  6. OK, got it, thanks. If there's anything else, please let me know.

  7. Great overview! I have one question that remains unanswered (as a non-native teacher of English):
    is it possible to use other relative pronouns besides "who", "that", and "when" in it-clefts? The grammar books I own don't address the question or only mention "that". You're listing "who" and "when" among the options which makes me think "where" should also be possible. And what about "whom"? The Grammaring link in your references section actually allows all relative pronouns including "which", which you specifically disallow. I'm a bit lost here. Could you point me to any sources? Thanks.
    P.S. According to the principles I know (as a non-native speaker) it should be spelled "focusing", not ss (for two syllable verbs double the final consonant only if preceded by consonant-vowel and only if in a stressed syllable, as in occurring)

  8. @elmhamcz - lets deal with the easy one first - focusing / focussing - when I first wrote that I wondered if I'd made a mistake, so I checked it fairly carefully. In British English we have a choice between single or double 's' in the -ing and -ed versions,as shown at Oxford, Collins and Longman dictionaries.

    American English sticks to the principle you mention, but the British spelling of cancelled, traveller, modelling etc (stress on first syllable, double final consonant) doesn't.

    Focus is just one of those weird exceptions that make language interesting.

    As to the main part of your question, I'll have a root around and get back to you on that one.

  9. @elmhamcz - OK, I've done some digging, and the resulting remarks are rather long for a comment, so I've published it as a post,
    here. I'm afraid, however, that I haven't really come up with any easy answers.

  10. Thank you for this. I looked far and wide for good grammar teaching on cleft sentences and this is the best I´ve come across. It´s very detailed. I took a 2 hour lesson today, mostly using this site, on just "it" cleft sentences.

  11. This is excellent and very comprehensive! I just taught this to my CAE teen group, but thought I could have explained it better. I'm going to use this in my next class to go over it again to make it clearer. Many thanks! Do you have any suggestions for 'real life' scenarios to use this function? Thanks again. Great work!

  12. To Lorraine, Becky and Mohammed-Jo, thanks for the kind comments. Becky, you could perhaps give your students some false information and get them to correct it using a cleft sentence, for example you could say "Clinton won the election", or "France voted to leave the Europeam Union".

  13. Dear Warsaw Will, let me thank you, first of all, for sharing this with everybody else. It's a very thorough explanation of cleft sentences, and really good. But there is something I would like to know, and it is the answer to Exercise 1, question 3. I have written 'it was for their anniversary he bought her a ring', but the correction system won't accept my answer. Could you please help me with this?
    By the way, I think it would be really helpful if students could see the correct answers somewhere when we are unable to provide them. But it's just an opinion, of course.

    Kind regards from the Canary Islands.

  14. This is by far the best and most comprehensive page on cleft sentences.

  15. Wow, nice post. Very helpful. Good for practice. Do check my link on
    types of sentences.