Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Random thoughts on that and wh-words in it-clefts

A couple of years ago I posted a lesson on cleft sentences where I said:
The structure is:
It is / was + emphasised noun phrase + who / that / when + rest of the sentence
Notice that the use of pronouns is the same as in defining relative clauses:
  • who or that for people
  • that (NOT which) 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.
I'll quickly gloss over the fact that I compared using that and not which to the use of pronouns in defining relative clauses (where, of course, we can use which, despite the naysayers).
The problem was that a commenter, a certain elhamcz, had noticed that while I had ruled out which for things, one of the resources I had linked to included it in their list of allowable pronouns, and not surprisingly elhamcz was rather confused. Furthermore elhamcz wanted to know what other relative pronouns or wh-words, for example whom and where, could be used in it-clefts, and whether there were any sources that could provide an answer to this problem.
Now I am neither a linguist nor a grammar expert, and had based my lesson on EFL grammars that I use regularly, but I wondered if perhaps I was being too categorical in dismissing which for things, and should I have included when? Anyway, I decided to have a root around.

What is an it-cleft? A quick reminder.

An it-cleft (also called a true cleft, or simply a cleft sentence) is a structure where we emphasise one element of a sentence (usually but not always a noun phrase, and underlined in these examples) by placing it after an introductory it is/was and putting the rest of the sentence into what looks very much like a defining (restrictive) relative clause. Cleft means split or divided, and that's what we do to the original sentence: we split it in two:
  • Sheila wants a puppy for Christmas
    - normal non-cleft sentence
  • It's Sheila who wants a puppy for Christmas
    (not Debbie, for example)
    - cleft sentence emphasising the subject
  • It's a puppy (that) Sheila wants for Christmas
    (rather than a kitten, for example)
    - cleft sentence emphasising the subject
  • It's for Christmas that Sheila wants a puppy
    (rather than for her birthday, which isn't till March)
    - cleft sentence emphasising a prepositional phrase
The question is: Can we use the same introductory words, relative pronouns and adverbs, to introduce that second clause as we can in standard defining relative clauses, or are there some special restrictions when it comes to it-clefts? In other words, can we use other wh-words such as which, whom, whose, when and where?

EFL grammar books and course materials

Most EFL grammar books seem to mention only that, who and zero (omitting the pronoun altogether when it refers to the object); this is from Grammar and Vocabulary for CAE and CPE by Side and Wellman (Longman), which I use a lot:
To emphasise nouns, we can use a structure with it + be + noun + that/who
  • It was the jug (that) she threw out of the window
  • It was the window (that) she threw the jug out of
Similarly, Michael Swan, in Practical English Usage (Oxford), the standard reference book for many an EFL teacher, says:
... the words to be emphasised are usually joined to the relative clause by that
who is possible instead of that when a personal subject is emphasised
Neither of these books mention which, but nor do they specifically rule it out, simply saying that that is the usual form. B.D.Graver, in the rather older Advanced English Practice (Oxford 1979), however, seems to do just that, as well as disallowing any other introductory words (for example where or when):
Either who or that can be used to refer to a person, but in all other cases we use that, even when referring to adverbial phrases:
  • It was John who/that solved the problem.
  • It's your help (that) I need,not your sympathy.
  • It's only in the winter that it really gets cold.
And in the even earlier Practical English Grammar, by AJ Thomson, AV Martinet (Oxford), first published in 1960 and the 4th edition of which (1986) still appears to be quite popular here in Poland, they say:
  • It was Tom who helped us. (not Bill or Jack)
  • It was Ann that I saw. (not Mary)
When the object is a proper noun, as above, that is more usual than who. With all other objects, that is the correct form:
  • It's the manager that we want to see.
  • It was wine that we ordered, (not beer)
that is usual for non-personal subjects:
  • It's speed that causes accidents, not bad roads.
Martin Hewings, in Advanced Grammar in Use (Cambridge 1999), although agreeing that we usually use that, is a little more open to other possibilities:
The information we want to emphasise comes after be and is followed by a clause usually beginning with that.
We sometimes use which or who instead of that; where and when can be used, but usually only in informal English, and how or why can't replace that.
And some more modern course books seem to reflect that, at least as far as which goes:
It is/was … who/which/that

Destination C1 & C2 (Macmillan 2007)

It is / was + noun phrase + relative clause (with that / which etc)

Global Advanced (Macmillan 2012)

it + a form of be (+ not and/or adverb) + emphasised word + that/which/who clause

MyGrammarLab Advanced (Pearson 2012)

And at least one course book has an example with when:
  • It was last Friday when we had the meeting.

English File Advanced 2010

I was using this book regularly when I wrote that post, so this is probably where I got the bit about when from.

Reference grammars

There are two very large reference grammars, written mainly by linguists, that have had an enormous influence on other writers of grammar books and course books: The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik, published in 1985, and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CaGEL), by Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum and others, published in 2002.
Both have quite a lot to say about it-clefts, but not a lot about what words introduce the relative clause, although the vast majority of their examples start with that, who or zero.
This is from the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (18.26):
... examples show that pronouns used in [restrictive] relative clauses (who, that, zero) are also used to introduce cleft sentences
There are differences from relative clauses, however, in that the wh-forms are rare in cleft sentences in comparison with that and zero. Although whose is allowed in cleft sentences (It's Uncle Bill whose address I lost), whom and which are only marginally possible, and it is virtually impossible to use whom or which preceded by a preposition.
I'll take a closer look at that last statement a bit later. In the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Chapter 16, Section 9 Clefts), there is no mention that I can see of what relative words are possible. Nearly all the examples are of that, who or zero pronoun, but there are a couple of exceptions:
  • It's you whose head will roll.
    or its more common variant:
    It's your head that will roll.
  • It's the president to whom I'm referring.
    a more formal version of:
    It's the president I'm referring to.
So, according to CaGel, whom and whose can exist, but that we are more likely to use alternative variants. I can find no mention, in either work, of when or where.

Linguistics books and papers

There appears to be quite a lot of discussion about it-clefts among linguists, most of it way above my head, but remarkably little about introductory pronouns, etc. But here are a couple of examples with which.
  • It was the money which (that) he stole
    (from a paper by Bolinger 1972)
  • It's not the frog but the tadpoles which tell us the truth about our class system.
    (from a BBC debate)

The English it-Cleft: A Constructional Account and a Diachronic Investigation, by Amanda Patten Google Books

And another, although perhaps not from a linguistics book:
  • It is these books which challenge his views.

Mastering English: An Advanced Grammar for Non-native and Native Speakers Google Books

In a linguistics paper, an unnamed author at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia lists these possibilities, including which, in which, whom and whose:
  • It was the man Ø/that/who/whom I saw first.
  • It was the book Ø/that/which I read first.
  • It was the young man whose dog died last summer.
  • It was the red folder in which we found the clue.


And from the same source we have a couple with where and one with when. These examples are part of the author's argument that it-clefts can take the same introductory words as defining relative clauses, in opposition to some other linguists, Delahunty, Rochemont and Heggie, who have apparently put forward the idea that the second clause in an it-cleft is not in fact a relative clause, but something different, where that is the basic opener, and they disallow where and when, for example. This theory might explain why which isn't used so much, but doesn't really account for the common (and uncontroversial) use of who in it-clefts.
  • It is here where the hearty French established a settlement along the frothy St. Lawrence River and survived the first relentless winter.
    [Insight Guide to Canada, p. 15]
  • Yet it is precisely on this point where Ahlquist and I must part company.
    [Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Op-ed page, 8/22/87]
  • It’s the summer term when you’re really stuck.
Arguably, the two examples with where are not typical it-clefts, as we are not comparing here with anywhere else, or this point with any other point, and wouldn't be laying any particular stress on those words. But the fact that they could be made into non-clefts (by removing the it is ... that structure and putting the emphasised element back into its normal position) seems to confirm their cleft status (as I understand it):
  • The hearty French established a settlement here ...
  • Yet Ahlquist and I must part company precisely on this point.
And finally, I found a paper, Relatives and Pronouns in the English Cleft Construction, by Matthew Reeve 2007. Strangely he doesn't say an awful lot about the actual pronouns used, but in comparing them with those used in defining relative clauses he gives this list of wh-words (and of course adding that and zero).
which, who(m), (?)where, (?)when, *how, *why
Suggesting that whom and which are standard, but that there is some question over when and where. He gives these example sentences, where ? before a word suggests that it is a questionable choice, and an asterisk (*) means he considers it ungrammatical.
  • It was a picture of John which/that he decorated his door with.
  • It was in the Kruger National Park ?where/that the mongoose caught the snake.
  • It was in 1997 ?when/that Tony Blair became Prime Minister.
  • It was with a picture of John *which/that he decorated his door.

Relatives and Pronouns in the English Cleft Construction, Matthew Reeve 2007 PDF



This is by far the common word used to introduce the relative clause part in an it-cleft sentence. It can be used to refer to both things and people as well as after adverbial phrases. The only time I can see where it is not possible is when whose is used, but as they show at CaGEL, there is still a more comon variant with a possessive and that.


Although less common than that, who can always be used when referring to people, both subject and object (as in defining relative clauses). There is a suggestion (by Thomson and Martine) that that is more common after proper nouns (names etc) when they refer to the object of the relative clause - It was Ann that I saw.


The zero pronoun (omission) is always possible when referring to the object of the relative clause - It was Ann I saw, It was my biscuits you ate.


Although sometimes possible, and specifically allowed by many sources, which is not nearly so commonly used as that, and is probably better avoided by learners.


It's possible to use whose, but its use is rare, and there's a more usual workaround using a possessive and that.
  • It was Sam whose advice I wanted, not yours!
  • It was Sam's advice I wanted, not yours!


Several sources show whom as being possible, but its use is rare and formal (many native speakers, me included, find whom rather stilted and old-fashioned). As in defining relative clauses, we generally prefer who or zero (nothing) - as whom is only ever used to refer to the object it can always be omitted - see the example from CaGEL.

when and where

Probably the most problematic. Some authorities accept when and where in an informal style, but there appears to be some discussion among linguists as to whether they can be used in true it-clefts, arguments that are far too technical for me! And they don't seem to get mentioned in either CGEL or CaGEL. Again, workarounds with that (or zero) are usually possible, although you might have to add a preposition:
  • It was the living room where I left it, not the kitchen.
    It was in the living room (that) I left it, not (in) the kitchen.
  • It's next Monday when he's leaving, not next Tuesday.
    It's next Monday (that) he's leaving, not next Tuesday.


There doesn't really seem to be an easy answer to my original question - it rather depends on who you ask.
As for my lesson, on one hand, yes, I was being too categorical in dismissing which for things without an explanation, but on the other, I think I would still advise foreign learners to stick to using that, and optionally using who and the zero option where appropriate, especially in tests and written work. As well as being less commonly used, which seems to have some restrictions on its use, whom is hardly ever necessary, whose is possible but a bit unwieldy, and when and where seem rather problematic.
And there's an added bonus in sticking to that alone; it's much simpler to learn.


We saw that in The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the authors suggest that a sentence like 'It was the dog to which I gave the water' can only be read as a defining (restrictive) relative clause identifying the dog, and not as a cleft sentence, comparing it with 'It was the dog I gave the water to', which, as I read it, could be seen as either a cleft sentence or a defining relative clause, depending on intonation (stress)
  • It was the dog I gave the water to.
    (as opposed to the cat, for example - cleft sentence)
  • It was the dog I gave the water to.
    (this dog, not that other dog over there - defining relative clause identifying the dog)
But I don't fully understand the difference, and I'm not quite sure how this would apply to whom after a preposition, as in the CaGEL example, which although very formal, is, I would have thought unambiguously an it-cleft - It's the president to whom I'm referring. But that's another story.

Related post


  1. Very impressive, thanks a lot! I was actually going to check the CGEL myself so you've saved me a (useless) trip to the library.
    Obviously, "that" is the preferred option in it-clefts and that's what I teach my students. I asked because I actually have some linguistic background, I find the question intriguing and couldn't get a definitive answer anywhere. Now I know it was because there isn't one. It seems this is one of the problems that can't be dealt with prescriptively, only descriptively. Thanks for your help. Impressive knowledge and work with resources for someone who claims not to be a grammar expert:-)

    And as for the double s in focussing - that's fascinating too. I'm aware of the spelling differences between American and British English but I've never encountered this (it doesn't get mentioned in textbooks either). Good to know. I think I'll stick with single s, double ss tempts me to move the stress to the second syllable and reminds me of "cussing" too much.

  2. Thanks. And thanks for giving me food for thought. I've amended my original post a bit and added a bit on pronouns and one or two other little bits and pieces. It also got me to wondering why it-cleft questions - 'Was it you who ate my last biscuit?', which I would have thought are used quite a lot, get so little mention. Well, no mention, in any of the EFL materials I've looked at.

    It seems the focusing/focussing pair goes for AmE as well as BrE. I prefer it because of the soft S. The only other verb I can find that doubles the S on an unstressed syllable is 'teargas', where only a double S is listed.

  3. Thanks, it really help me to understand this. Hope to post more lessons. ☺