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Cleft sentences

Home » Advanced English Grammar » Cleft sentences

Cleft sentences

Cleft sentences

With regard to cleft sentences, how many times have you heard natives starting a sentence with the words what or it or all? In short, when a sentence begins with “what”, “it” or “all” and the sentence has a corresponding clause, we call said sentence a “Cleft Sentence”.

For example:

  • What really annoyed me about him is…
  • It was the expensive bill that got me upset.
  • All I need is a good supper to fill me up.

Above all, these sentences are using the words what, it, and all to put emphasis on the other parts of the sentence — this is clefting.

That is to say, using cleft sentences makes the following clauses from above more emphatic and stick out; “what really annoys me about him is…”, “it was the expensive bill that got me upset.”, and “all I need is a good supper”.

What are cleft sentences?

Cleft sentences are complex sentences that are ‘divided’. The main words used in cleft sentences are; what, it, and all, and you can use these words to emphasise different parts of the clause.

When using cleft sentences, you can change the order of words of a sentence to make them stand out. So, this is how cleft sentences work.

Moreover, it’s definitely an odd grammatical concept that leaves most non-natives flabbergasted and unable to grasp. That’s why we are going to fully elaborate and understand cleft sentences with examples below the video.

Examples with ‘what’

  • James is a colleague here.  (No emphasis).
  • What James is, is a colleague here.  (James is as a person, absolutely a colleague).
  • A colleague is what James is here. (Emphasising that James is definitely a colleague).
  • Amanda has a job. (No emphasis).
  • A job is what Amanda has. (Amanda definitely has a job).
  • What Amanda has is a job. (Amanda has a job).
  • Jack has a secret to tell Ann. (No emphasis).
  • A secret is what Jack has to tell Ann. (There is definitely a secret to tell).
  • What Jack has to tell Ann is a secret. (jack is in possession of a secret).

Examples with ‘it’

  • My boss sent the signed contract to his colleague on Tuesday. (No emphasis)
  • It was my boss that sent the signed contract to his colleague on Tuesday. (No one else, only the boss who sent it).
  • It was the signed contract that my boss sent to his colleague on Tuesday. (Nothing else, only the contract that was sent).
  • It was his colleagues that my boss sent the signed contract to on Tuesday. (NOT to anybody else).
  • It was Tuesday that my boss sent the signed contract to his colleagues. (ONLY on Tuesday, NO other day).

To clarify, in the four above examples, the clauses are being emphasised differently depending on the cleft structure.

Cleft sentences with ‘all’

  • All I’ve done today is being annoying to my sister.
  • All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.
  • What will you be having for dinner tonight? All I’ll be having for dinner is a pork chop.
  • All you need is love.

Above sentences in non-cleft form

  • I haven’t done much today, except being annoying to my sister.
  • I want my two front teeth for Christmas.
  • What will you be having for dinner tonight? I’ll only be having a pork chop for dinner.
  • You need love.

The sentences used in cleft form put more emphasis on the various clauses, and depending on the context are necessary.

Remember, Cleft Sentences can emphasise different parts of a sentence

Firstly, a normal sentence, that is, a non-cleft, for instance:

  • “I Like reading books”.

On the other hand, let’s use cleft sentences to emphasise different elements of the sentence:

  1. It is I who likes reading books.
  2. What I like reading are books.
  3. Books are what I like reading.
  4. All I like reading are books.

Locate the emphasis in the above phrases

Now, let’s take a closer look at the above cleft sentences to see where the emphasis is:

  1. “It is me who likes reading books”: The subject pronoun “it” is being used to emphasise the object of the sentence “me”. Therefore, emphasis is put on “me”, the person who likes reading books.
  2. “What I like reading are books”. The pronoun “what” is being used to emphasise “what the person likes to read” — that is, “books”. So, the emphasis is put on “books” and not “I”.
  3. “Books are what I like reading”. The sentence in the first clause begins with “books” and in the second clause with “what I like reading”. So, in this sentence, emphasis is put more directly on “books”.
  4. “All I like reading are books”. To emphasise that “all” the person likes to do is read books, the sentence begins with “all” to emphasise that element.

Let’s take another example:

Similarly, we’ll look at another simple sentence in English and try to emphasise different elements of the sentence, using different words to emphasise various elements, for instance:

  • Edward loves playing basketball. = normal, non-cleft sentence.
Cleft sentencesEmphasis location
(It) 
It is basketball that Edward loves playing.“Basketball”.
It is Edward that loves playing basketball.  “Edward”.
It is playing basketball what Edward loves.“Playing basketball”.
(what) 
What Edward loves is playing basketball.“The thing that Edward loves”.
Playing basketball is what Edward loves.“Playing basketball”.
(all) 
All Edward loves is playing basketball.  “All Edward loves”.
Playing basketball is all Edward loves.  “Playing basketball”.

Test your knowledge of clefts with context

  • What would you say is your favourite thing to do, Tyson?1
  • Well, what I love is reading and streaming series.2
  • So, would you say you’re the indoors type?
  • Absolutely! It is being in the comfort of my own home that I enjoy.3
  • Fair enough.
  • What about you? What did you get up to last weekend?4
  • All I got up to was overseeing the renovations of my apartment.5 There’s not much else for me to do because there’s a tonne6 of work to do, you know.
  • How are you finding it?
  • Well, what bothers me at the moment is that the works7 are prolonging a little too long, and I’m eager to have my home back.
  • All I can say is I hope you get back and settled in soon!8
  • I hope so too, thanks.

Analysis of context

  1. “What would you say is your favourite thing to do, Tyson?” “What” is being used as an interrogative and not as part of a cleft sentence.
  2. “What I really love is reading and streaming series”. A cleft sentence with “what” is used to illustrate “what I really love”.
  3. “It is being in the comfort of my own home that I enjoy”. Emphasis is on “being in the comfort of my own home”. If this sentence were not being emphasised it would be “I really enjoy being in the comfort of my own home”.
  4. “What did you get up to last weekend?” Don’t confuse questions with cleft sentences.
  5. “All I got up to was overseeing the renovations of my apartment”. A cleft sentence with “all” is being used to emphasise “all I got up to was…”. Therefore, without emphasis, this sentence would read: “I got up to overseeing the renovations of my apartment”.
  6. “Tonne” = UK. “Ton” = US.
  7. “What bothers me at the moment is that the works…” A cleft sentence with “what” is used to put emphasis on the fact that the person is “bothered”.
  8. “All I can say is I hope you get back and settled in soon!” Without emphasis, this sentence would read: “I hope you get back and settled in soon”. Consequently, emphasis is being put on “all I can say”. Therefore, the speaker wants to emphasise the fact that he/she has nothing else to say, except for this one (important) thing.

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