Grammar – Cleft Sentences

Grammar Point of the Month – Cleft Sentences

Cleft sentences are used to help us focus on a particular part of the sentence and to emphasise what we want to say by introducing it or building up to it with a kind of relative clause.

Because there are two parts to the sentence it is called cleft(from the verb cleave) which means divided into two.

Cleft sentences are particularly useful in writing where we cannot use intonation for purposes of focus or emphasis, but they are also frequently used in speech.

Wh-cleft sentences (What I need is a holiday)

All-cleft sentences (All I want for Christmas is you)

Wh-cleft sentences are most often introduced by what, but we can also usewhy, where, how, etc. The information in the wh-clause is typically old or understood information, while the information in the following clause is new and in focus:


I don’t know what to cook for them? I don’t know what they like.


What they like is smoked salmon. (They like smoked salmon)

Understood already (old information): we are talking about what they like to eat

Focus (new information): they like smoked salmon


This remote control isn’t working.


What we need to do is get new batteries for it. (We need to get new batteries for it)

Understood already (old information): there is something that we need to do to fix the remote control.

Focus (new information): we need to buy new batteries

It-cleft sentences

It-clauses are the most common type of cleft clause. The information that comes after it is emphasised for the listener. The clause which follows the it-clause is connected using that and it contains information that is already understood. We often omit that in informal situations when it is the object of the verb:


Sharon’s car got broken into yesterday, did it?


No. It was Nina’s car that got broken into! 

Focus (new information): it was Nina’s car

Understood already (old information): a car got broken into


You’ve met my mother, haven’t you?


No, it was your sister (that) I met!

Focus (new information): it was your sister

Understood already (old information): I met someone in your family

Is it August that you are going on holiday? (Are you going on holiday in August?)

Focus (new information): the month August?

Understood already (old information): you are going on holiday

When a personal subject is the focus, we can use who instead of that. We often omit who in informal situations when it is the object of the verb:

It was my husband (who or that) you spoke to on the phone.

When a plural subject is the focus, we use a plural verb but It + be remains singular:

It’s the parents who were protesting most.

We can use negative structures in the it-clause:

It wasn’t the Greek student who phoned.

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