This week’s tip of the week is how to construct cleft sentences in English.
Cleft sentences are often used in English to put particular emphasis on certain words or expressions in a sentence. We can focus on these by introducing them or building up to them with a kind of relative clause, making them stand out. The word “cleft” comes from the verb cleave and means “divided”.
Cleft sentences are useful in written English when intonation cannot be used for emphasis. They are, however, also frequently used in spoken English.
Compare the following sentences:
1. I’ve come to discuss your company’s latest turnover figures.
The reason why I’ve come is to discuss your company’s latest turnover figures
2. John works harder than anybody else in this organisation.
The person who works harder than anybody else in this organisation is John.
John is the person in this organisation who works harder than anybody else.
→ The words you want to emphasise are joined to the relative clause by is/was and an expression such as the person who, or what (meaning “the thing that”).
→ These words to be emphasised can be put at the beginning or at the end of the sentence.
To emphasise a verb (or an expression beginning with a verb), a more complicated structure has to be used: What … do. It is possible to use infinitives with and without to.
For example: He shouted.
What he did was (to) shout
She writes about SMEs.
What she does is (to) write about SMEs.
In an informal style, we often use subject + verb instead of an infinitive.
For example: What she does is, she writes about SMEs
What I’ll do is, I’ll phone John and ask if he’s free.
Emphasising a whole sentence
The cleft structure what and the verb happen gives a whole sentence extra emphasis.
For example: The computer crashed.
What happened was (that) the computer crashed.