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Review of  Clefts and their Relatives

Reviewer: Avelino Corral Esteban
Book Title: Clefts and their Relatives
Book Author: Matthew Reeve
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 23.5297

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This monograph seeks to present an innovative generative analysis of cleft constructions, whose study has always presented a challenge for syntactic theory. In it, the author, Matthew Reeve argues that clefts should be analysed in such a way that the locality conditions on the modification can be revised so that they account for the internal structure of the two DPs and consequently permit ´discontinuous´ modification of the clefted constituent. This monograph contains six chapters, including the introduction, references and index. The main objective of this book is to reveal the existence of an apparent mismatch between the syntax and semantics of clefts and related constructions and attempt to solve such a mismatch by bringing clefts in line with discontinuous modification patterns.

Chapter One is a brief introduction containing a summary of the most important issues that are dealt with in each of the subsequent chapters. In this brief chapter, the author deals with the issue of determining what can be regarded as a ´cleft construction`, since this is not an easy question to answer.

Chapter Two begins by offering a brief summary on the previous analyses of cleft constructions, under which there is no syntax / semantics mismatch. According to their focus, derivational accounts can be classified into two groups, that is, extrapositional and expletive accounts: extrapositional accounts primarily focus on the it-cleft as a copular sentence and take the cleft clause as modifying the cleft pronoun “it”; in contrast, expletive accounts claim that the cleft clause is a type of relative clause that does not restrict or modify the syntactically neighbouring clefted constituent and consider the cleft pronoun and copula to be semantically empty. Subsequent to this review of previous generative work on English clefts, the rest of the chapter offers the author´s own, distinct analysis of English clefts, which draws essentially on Hedberg (2000). The author presents a syntactic analysis of clefts, whereby the cleft clause is a restrictive relative clause and consequently behaves like a modifier of the clefted constituent, hence, the former is syntactically represented as adjoined to the latter (rather than being base-generated as an adjunct to the cleft pronoun or as an adjunct to the VP). Likewise, he also argues that the cleft pronoun behaves like a referential pronoun and therefore is responsible for the presuppositions of clefts, hence the initial pronoun is non-expletive. The assumption of these two features apparently gives rise to a series of syntax / semantics mismatches, which will be dealt with in the rest of the book.

Chapter Three proposes a solution to every syntax / semantics mismatch. The first one comes from the fact that the cleft clause is adjoined to the clefted constituent, but semantically modifies the initial pronoun. The author argues that this problem can be solved if modification by a relative clause is possible not just under sisterhood, but also when licensing under conditions based on c/m - command (i.e. c-command and / or m-command) which normally gives the same results as sisterhood, but which additionally allows ´discontinuous` modification. In other words, the problem is that despite the fact that the cleft clause is neither underlyingly adjoined to “it” nor licensed as a modifier of “it” by the Complement Principle (which is conditioned by government relations), it can be interpreted as restricting the reference of “it” if we argue that the cleft clause essentially has two antecedents that fulfill two distinct licensing functions: a thematic function and a syntactic function. Thanks to the evidence provided by an endless amount of examples, which have been taken from Germanic languages (English mainly, but also German and Dutch), it seems plausible to conclude that the thematic and syntactic requirements are satisfied most commonly in a strictly compositional manner (i.e. under sisterhood), but also that in certain cases, they can be satisfied by a structure that does not involve sisterhood. Another type of syntax / semantics mismatch arises in another type of cleft construction that occurs in several Slavic languages. In this type of cleft, there is a neuter singular pronoun preceding a focused XP and an ´open clause´. The main difference with respect to the form of the English cleft construction lies in the fact the Slavic counterpart contains no copular verb and the open clause does not take the form of a relative clause. The author argues that the latter type should also be treated as parallel to specificational sentences, despite the formal differences displayed. These problems are further explored in the subsequent chapter.

Chapter Four attempts to provide the analysis of English clefts carried out in the previous chapter with a cross-typological orientation by offering an analysis of Russian (as well as other Slavic) clefts. This analysis reveals a new type of clefts that differs from English clefts in that it lacks evidence of copular and relative clause structure. The author proves that, by applying the analysis of Chapter 3 to Russian clefts, it is possible not just to account for their interpretative properties, but also to capture some otherwise mysterious syntactic properties (mainly, the fact that the focus generally immediately follows the pronoun, appearing then in IP-adjoined position), in contrast to non-cleft focus-fronting in Russian, which may alternatively target a VP-adjoined position. This contrastive analysis also explores various problems that arise in the relationship between the cleft clause and the cleft pronoun in English and Russian. The author states that in both languages the cleft clause restricts the reference of the cleft pronoun semantically, despite apparently entering into a syntactic relationship with the cleft pronoun that would allow a relationship of sisterhood. Consequently, this study of Slavic clefts has interesting implications for the cross-linguistic typology of clefts, since it proves that, despite the fact that the syntax of cleft constructions can vary quite considerably across languages, all the different types of clefts retain a specificational interpretation. This claim allows us not to have to analyse all the different cleft constructions by assimilating them to English clefts, as all types of clefts can be analysed analogously if we assume that they share the same pragmatic function.

The fifth chapter explores the syntax of specificational sentences more in depth. In it, the author explores the problem of how the cleft pronoun is semantically related to the clefted constituent or (taking into account that this construction is a type of specificational sentence) how the cleft pronoun and the clefted constituents, which are linked by the copula in a specificational sentence, are semantically related. The author solves the problem by treating specificational / equative sentences as structures involving an association with focus. In addition to proposing that the pronoun “it” thematically licenses a relative clause and the focus of the clause syntactically licenses the relative, the author suggests a relatively unified treatment of English and Russian clefts for the syntax of specificational sentences in general, which leads to the assumption that specificational sentences differ syntactically from predicational sentences in that they contain a functional head labeled ´Eq` (i.e. Equative) in the extended verbal projection. This element equates the denotations of the two DPs (e.g. the cleft pronoun and the clefted constituent) and has the semantic effect of identifying the two XPs, that is, ´Eq` makes a point of turning the post-copular XP into an identity predicate that can then be applied to the pre-copular XP, giving rise to an equative reading. What is new about this proposal is that it is this functional head, ´Eq`, that associates with focus.

The concluding chapter summarises the main proposals discussed in the previous chapters. It also highlights the idea that some constructions involve syntax / semantics mismatches and that the traditional way that has always been used in order to resolve such mismatches (i.e. by positing a level of representation at which no mismatch occurs) cannot account for the mismatch found in English clefts. To that end, it is essential to understand that syntax and semantics may not always work together. This argument is reflected in the fact that, despite the different syntax that English and Russian clefts exhibit, they involve the same syntax / semantics mapping. This leads to the assumption that, although existing types of clefts differ syntactically, they are all identical (thereby respecting the characterisation of Universal Grammar) at the semantic level in the sense that they share a common specificational interpretation.


''Clefts and their relatives'' is certainly a monograph whose title clearly indicates potential audiences who might be interested in its reading. Although any interested linguist will likely benefit from having read the findings in this book, syntacticians and semanticists desiring a concise and interesting look into these phenomena will specifically benefit from it; especially from the three central chapters. Furthermore, despite attracting the attention of a specific group of scholars interested in the topic of cleft constructions, the book turns out to be a unique contribution to general linguistics, especially due to the analysis that it offers regarding the syntactic representation of these constructions in which the author´s proposal manages to overcome many long-lasting problems. The overall goal of this book, which consists of solving the problems derived from an apparent syntax / semantics mismatch of cleft constructions, is met with incredible success.

The book is a single coherent work that, in light of its goal of treating clefts and restrictive relative clauses alike, raises interesting implications for future research. Although its generative orientation is barely alluded to in this book, the analysis of clefts and related constructions is developed within such an approach. Also, although the second chapter of this book begins the analysis of clefts by discussing previous literature on this issue, it has no critical orientation; the author´s method of analysis is based primarily on Hedberg (2000) and, although he rejects the two strands of the previous generative work on English clefts, he incorporates ideas of both the extrapositional and the expletive accounts into his own analysis. This book succeeds in offering a new analysis of cleft constructions and, in my mind, should be studied along with Pavey´s (2004) study of cleft constructions, which, despite being a work within a different theoretical framework (i.e. Role and Reference Grammar framework, which can be classified as a moderate functional approach), bears a strong resemblance to this book in the sense that both highlight the importance of the specificational function in the analysis of clefts and offer a detailed comparison between cleft constructions and relative clauses, thereby shedding light on the controversial issue regarding a probable common origin. This book stands out, as it gives an excellent account of the structure of cleft constructions, based on ample empirical evidence that is provided by numerous examples taken primarily from English but also from Russian and other languages such as German and Dutch, which grants a strong typological orientation to this study. Future ambitious researchers might seriously consider seeking examples from African, Asian or American languages that can support the ideas conveyed in this work.

Finally, in terms of methodology, the book is extremely well organised with even-length chapters (except for the introductory chapter, obviously) that each deal with a specific topic and follow a logical sequence. Also, this book provides a clear account of the research methodology followed to gather the data and reach conclusions. The author clearly displays the steps he followed to reach his conclusions and subsequently explains these fully. Furthermore, though the size of the volume is a necessary limitation, readers may be surprised by the enormous amount of examples that support the author´s view regarding each issue. The data the author provides are always relevant and poignant. In addition to it, another useful attribute of the book is the inclusion of summary points at the end of each section that help the reader assimilate the most relevant points and actively test his/her knowledge of the information found in each chapter before moving on to the next issue.

All in all, the book is a must-read for those working on the structure of complex NP constructions, as it sheds light on various linguistic patterns and attempts to provide explanations for many of them. It establishes itself as one of the most complete and in-depth analyses of the topic to date, and is likely to become necessary reading for any future researchers wishing to venture into the curiosities of cleft constructions. The author does not claim to have all the answers but he makes it clear that his work is a step forward in achieving a comprehensive understanding of this complicated grammatical construction. It is not an introductory book, as it requires a solid knowledge of several linguistic issues (as well as knowledge of generative grammar) because the material itself is complicated and the author does not give detailed definitions of the linguistic concepts discussed. However, any researcher interested in general linguistics striving to better understand cleft constructions and their relationship with other related constructions must have a copy of this volume.


Akmajian, Adrian. 1970. On deriving cleft sentences from pseudo-cleft sentences. Linguistic Inquiry 1 (2): 149-168.

Davidse, Kristin. 2000. A constructional approach to clefts. Linguistics 28 (6): 1101-1131.

Declerck, Renaat. 1988. Studies on Copular Sentences, Clefts and Pseudo-Clefts. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Delahunty, Gerald. 1981. Topics in the Syntax and Semantics of English Cleft Sentences. Ph. D. dissertation, University of California, Irvine.

Delin, Judy. 1989. Cleft Constructions in Discourse. Ph. D. dissertation. University of Edinburgh.

Den Dikken, Marcel 2009. Predication and specification in the syntax of cleft sentences. Ms, City University of New York.

E. Kiss, Katalin. 1999. The English cleft construction as a focus phrase. In Boundaries of Morphology and Syntax [Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 180], Lunella Mereu (ed.) 217-229. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hedberg, Nancy. 1990. The Discourse Function of Cleft Sentences in English. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Minnesota.

Hedberg, Nancy. 2000. On the referential status of clefts. Language 76 (4): 891-920

Pavey, Emma Louise. 2004. The English it-cleft construction: a Role and Reference Grammar analysis. Ph. D. dissertation. University of Sussex.

Percus, Orin. 1997. Prying open the cleft. Proceedings of NELS 27:337-351.

Sornicola, Rosanna. 1988. It-clefts and wh-clefts: two awkward sentence types. Journal of Linguistics 24 (2): 343-379.
Avelino Corral Esteban is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English Philology at both the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain. His main research focus is the study of the grammar of the Native American languages spoken in the Great Plains area, such as Lakhota, Cheyenne, Blackfoot or Crow, within the Role and Reference Grammar framework.