Comparison between It-clefts and WH-Clefts: Similarities and Differences

Seminar Paper, 2005

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Form and Structure of Clefts
II.1. Focus
II.2. Agreement

III. Types of Clefts
III.1. It- clefts
- Stressed focus it -clefts
- Informative-presupposition it -clefts
III.2. WH-clefts.
- Reversed WH-clefts
- Demonstrative WH-clefts
- Think -clefts
- Happen -clefts
III.3. Distribution

IV. Discourse Function of Clefts. Given vs. Known
IV.1. Functions of it- clefts
- Contrast
- The known fact effect
- Cause and effect relationship
- Politeness or Deference as discourse function
- Temporal subordination
IV.2. Functions of WH-clefts
- Contrast

V. Conclusions

I. Introduction

From language to language, there are different alternatives in which a speaker can structure information. Information structure deals with the highlighting of pieces of information in sentences. Even though there are a variety of ways in which the same basic informational content can be conveyed, the preference for a particular way reveals how the speaker’s semantic representation is transposed into syntactical data. Moreover, the speaker’s choice for structuring information into a particular linguistic form shows the coherent way in which utterances are connected in sequences, revealing thus the importance of discourse.

There are several syntactic devices that are able to encode the pragmatic information of a preferred alternative. One type of such devices used to mark information structure is cleft constructions. There are two major types of clefts: it -clefts and WH-clefts, also called pseudo-clefts.

There has been claimed in the literature for a long time that cleft constructions are interchangeable. Clefts present a series of syntactic similarities, but they behave differently in discourse. The purpose of this paper is to prove that it -clefts and WH-clefts are not interchangeable. In doing so, data will be analyzed by comparing clefts as far as form, structure, and discourse functions are concerned, and eventually, in the light of given and known information, I will show the essential differences between them.

Although the grammatical forms are in direct relation and determine to some degree the information structure in a cleft, apart from the syntactical level, of significant importance is the analysis of cleft constructions as integrated components of a discourse. One should take into account the natural flow of language in a discourse, the surrounding information and the linguistic context in which clefts occur.

This paper will present a parallelism in form, structure, and discourse functions between it- clefts and WH-clefts, and show that despite the symmetry in form and structure, the different discourse functions reveal clefts as autonomous and distinct syntactic devices.

II. Form and structure of clefts

Similar to dislocation, cleft sentences present information that could normally be given in a single clause in two clauses with their own verb. In this way, particular elements of the sentence are brought into focus. Cleft constructions mark information structure, and combine a presupposed clause with a focused element.

It -clefts consist of the pronoun it, a form of the verb to be, the focused element, and a relative-like dependant clause introduced by that, who/which or zero.

Ex: It was a book that Mary bought.

In the example above, the focused element is "a book", and the dependant clause is “that Mary bought a book”.

WH-clefts consist of a clause introduced by a wh -word, a form of the verb to be, and the focused element. In the example below, the underlined clause is the WH-clause, and “ a book” represents the focused element of the cleft.

Ex: What Mary bought was a book.

As the examples show, both cleft constructions contain a dependent clause and an element that is focused. They consist of the same type of elements, with the difference that the focused element appears early in it -clefts and late in WH-clefts.

With regard to the non-clefted form, Mary bought a book, one can observe that the clefts and the non-clefted form are cognitively synonymous, in that they have the same information content. Apart from the objective information content, clefts and their non-clefted form differ in focus and presupposition. In transformational grammar, the criterion for presuppositionhood states that “ a sentence S presupposes a sentence S’ just in case S logically implies S’ and the negation of S, ~S, also logically implies S”.[1]

In proving this, I will consider again the preceding examples. The cleft constructions presuppose the sentence Mary bought something. To see that the non-clefted form does not, according to the criterion for presuppositionhood, the sentence has to be negated. Its negation is Mary didn’t buy a book. Negated, the clefts become It wasn’t a book that Mary bought, respectively, What Mary bought wasn’t a book. The result shows that only the negation of the clefts still implies the presupposition. Consequently, the clefts share the same presupposition and the same focus (“a book”), but the non-clefted sentence does not.

As far as the structure of cleft constructions is concerned, there is no agreed structure in the existing linguistic research. If an analogy is drawn from the structure of a cleft to that of a dislocation, it -clefts will be compared with the structure of a left-dislocation, whereas WH-clefts will be treated in analogy to a right–dislocation.[2]

In the it -cleft given above in the examples, the relative-like dependant clause that Mary bought is the matrix clause to which the expletive clause It was a book is adjoined to the left. Similarly, in the WH-cleft, What Mary bought is the matrix clause to which the clause was a book is adjoined to the right. The structure of the sentences looks as follows:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In conclusion, the form and structure of it -clefts and pseudo-clefts is very similar. Firstly, they are both built from a dependent clause and a focus element, secondly, they put focus on the same element, and thirdly, they exhibit approximately the same structure. Not being yet a proof against clefts’ interchangeability, this symmetry shows the zone of incidence and the characteristics shared by both constructions.

II.1. Focus

A cleft such as it was Mary who bought a book conveys that Mary and only Mary came to visit. In literature, it is stated[3] that there is a uniqueness condition associated with the use of clefts in discourse. Yet Delin affirms[4] that a NP in focal position is concerned with exhaustiveness rather than uniqueness, because plural definite objects as well as singular or plural indefinite objects can also be focused. The only problem arises with the universally quantified NPs, which cannot be focused in a cleft:

Ex: It was Tom/ three cats/ a cat/ some cats that drank the milk.[5]

It was every/each rodent that drank the milk. *

Apart from the focused NPs, constituents as AdVs, and PPs can also be focused in it- clefts. On the other hand, WH-clefts are less flexible than it -clefts. They cannot be used to focus on a PP, or an ADV. WH-clefts permit focus only on a NP, a VP, or a that -clause.

- NP:

It was the psychoanalysis that discovered the role of childhood in someone’s personality.

What discovered the role of childhood in someone’s personality was the psychoanalysis.

- AdvP:

It was then that I became interested in philosophy.

When I became interested in philosophy was then. *

- PP:

It is against this kind of politics that many people protest.

What/ How/ Where many people protest is against this kind of politics. *

- VP:

What that does is manipulate the people.

It is manipulate the people that that does. *

- That -clause:

What he is saying is that all were involved in the strike.

It is that all were involved in the strike that he is saying. *

The comparison of clefts’syntactic domains shows that in general, it -clefts are slightly more flexible than WH-clefts. They are similar in that they both put focus on a NP, but different when the focused element is a PP, an AdvP, a VP or a that -clause. These differences in distribution reflect grammatical differences, and therefore their distinctness.


[1] Keenan (1971: 45). Quoted in: Prince, E. (1978). A Comparison of WH-clefts and It-clefts in Discourse. In Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America, Baltimore.

[2] Cf. E. Precht (2003). Information structure in non-native discourse of multilingual speakers.

[3] Cf. Halvorsen (1978), Atlas and Levinson (1981). Quoted in Delin J. / E. Klein (1990). Presuppositions of It-clefts. Paper presented at the Esprit Workshop on Presupposition, Nijmegen, 1990.

[4] Cf. J. Delin. / E. Klein (1990: 11)

[5] Cf. J. Delin. / E. Klein (1990: 12)

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Comparison between It-clefts and WH-Clefts: Similarities and Differences
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar)
Introduction to Information Structure
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it-clefts, Wh-clefts
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Gabriela Bara (Author), 2005, Comparison between It-clefts and WH-Clefts: Similarities and Differences, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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