LINGUIST List 24.2146

Tue May 21 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics; Syntax: Patten (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 12-Mar-2013
From: Eugenio Goria <>
Subject: The English it-Cleft: A Constructional Account and a Diachronic Investigation
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Amanda PattenTITLE: The English it-CleftSUBTITLE: A Constructional Account and a Diachronic InvestigationSERIES TITLE: Topics in English Linguistics [TiEL] 79PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Eugenio Goria, Università degli Studi di Pavia


Amanda Patten’s work is a significant new contribution to the field of cleftconstructions, a topic which has been given different theoretical andmethodological treatments, but which still leaves a good number of openproblems encouraging present and future research. The book consists of about250 pages, where the author discusses English ‘it’-clefts both synchronically,focussing on structural and pragmatic properties, and diachronically, showingthe development of the construction from Old to Modern English. The frameworkadopted is construction grammar and she fully exploits the tools provided bythis approach, in that she holds a monostratal view of language structure, andin that she considers the ‘it’-cleft’s meaning as non-compositional,determined by the construction itself, and motivated both by more schematicconstructions and by extension from the prototype.

In chapter 1 Patten gives an overview of the entire work, concentrating on therelevant features of ‘it’-clefts, and then discussing past literature on thetopic. She distinguishes between two different approaches, namely the“expletive approach”, based on the notion that elements like ‘it’ and ‘was’are semantically empty function words, and the “extraposition approach”, basedon the tenet that ‘it’-clefts are an instance of a specificational sentence,where the first ‘it’ is a non-empty pronoun modified by an extraposedrestrictive relative. In the author’s view, the meaning of ‘it’-clefts comesfrom the meaning of the more schematic ‘specificational copular sentences’,through the synchronic cognitive process which in construction grammar hasbeen called inheritance. She rejects then the notion of syntactic derivationlike the one suggested, for instance, in Akmajian (1970): in the author’sview, ‘it’-clefts are as basic as copular sentences, but they are morespecific, more lexical in a lexicon-syntax continuum.

Chapter 2 is a short overview of the principles of construction grammar, as away to explain highly idiosyncratic linguistic patterns like cleftssynchronically in terms of a hierarchy where constructional meaning isinherited by specialised, lexically filled constructions, from more generaland lexically open ones. Patten gives a constructional description oflinguistic change where token frequency of one specific element accounts forits entrenchment in the system and fossilisation, while type frequency isresponsible for the entrenchment of a more general schema. New types are seenas extensions from this prototype. In this view of language structure, the‘it’-cleft is thus motivated both synchronically, by inheritance fromspecificational copular constructions, and diachronically, throughfossilisation of no longer productive elements and extensions from theprototype.

Chapter 3 is dedicated to specificational copular constructions. According toHiggins (1979) specification can be viewed as the function of listing themembers of a set, and in the ‘inverse approach’ partly followed by the authorthis listing function is regarded as the inverse of nominal predication. Theauthor addresses here the ‘NP be NP’ copular structures, pointing out thedifference between ‘John is the best surgeon’ (predicative) and ‘The bestsurgeon is John’ (specificational). The inversion is motivated by aninformation structure constraint, which forces the Focus to follow the Topic,while the definiteness of the first NP accounts for the property ofexhaustiveness shown by the construction. Both predicative and specificationalsentences are part of a more general “predicate nominal semantics” category,which is employed to give an account of ‘pseudo-clefts’, namely wh-clefts(‘what I bought was a Swiss watch’), th-clefts (‘the thing I bought was aSwiss watch’), and all-clefts (‘all I bought was a Swiss watch’). Suchstructures are seen as more specific constructions depending on the‘specificational inversion construction’ with which they share many features.It follows from this that the structure sometimes called the ‘reversepseudo-cleft’ (‘a Swiss watch is what I bought’) no longer has to be accountedfor in terms of the output of a movement rule; instead, it is described assimply inheriting from the ‘non-inversion copular construction’, a moregeneral structure like ‘JOHN is the best surgeon’, where ‘John’ is in focus.In this way, the notion of an independent pseudocleft-construction category istotally eliminated.

Chapter 4 gives a Construction Grammar account of English ‘it’-clefts. Theauthor provides a discontinuous constituent interpretation, according to whichthe embedded clause is extraposed from a definite NP whose head is thesemantically underspecified element ‘it’. Patten illustrates the functionalproperties of ‘it’-clefts, such as the focality of the clefted constituent,its contrastiveness, the exhaustiveness of the specificational meaning, andthe triggering of presupposition. She next describes the structural propertiesof the construction, accounting for the behaviour of the cleft clause, whichseems like a less prototypical restrictive relative. Among these properties,particular emphasis is given to agreement: evidence is given that the ‘it’element and the relative clause stand in a subject-verb relationship, which isfar easier to account for if the existence of a discontinuous constituent isassumed.

In chapter 5 the author addresses less prototypical ‘it’-clefts, namelypredicational clefts (‘it was an interesting meeting that I went to lastnight’, ‘where interesting’ is part of the predicate; cf. Declerck 1988) andproverbial clefts (‘it’s a long road that has no turns’, with the sameinformation structure as ‘a road which has no turns is a long one’). Thesestructures are shown to inherit their specific features from the predicatenominal construction, while their formal properties come from the ‘it’-cleftschema. She then illustrates how, in a discontinuous constituent account, thereferring expression of a specificational ‘it’-cleft does not have to be anNP, allowing a non-nominal focus in post-copular position such as PP. Thisperspective avoids a highly idiosyncratic treatment, while it leaves open thequestion of the type of constituent that can enter in the construction. Thethird type of construction is informative presupposition ‘it’-clefts, whichhave the discourse pragmatic function of immediately integrating a piece ofinformation into the hearer’s knowledge, exploiting the fixed argumentstructure of the cleft construction.

The second part of the book is dedicated to a diachronic study of the English‘it’ (i.e. the antecedent of relative clauses) were frequently modified bysentence-final restrictive relative clauses. In particular, this pattern isvery common with ‘hit’ (> it), which has animate reference. Sentence finalposition, in fact, was strongly preferred until Early Middle English. When MEbegan to have unextraposed relatives, ‘it’-clefts retained this ancientfeature. On a historical basis, number agreement is not problematic, as‘it/hit’ is an underspecified element that can take both singular and pluralreference. Gender agreement as well gives good evidence for a discontinuousanalysis: in the most frequent pattern, the only instance of gender agreementhappens to be between the determinative pronoun ‘hit’, which ismorphologically neuter, and the inflected relative pronoun, which is neuter aswell, while the clefted constituent can be either masculine or feminine. Forthe author this is strong evidence that the determinative pronoun and therelative clause form a discontinuous constituent.

Chapter 7 discusses the diachronic development of the ‘it’-cleft and theconventionalisation of its form. After illustrating the structure of hercorpora, the author briefly discusses some non-’it’-cleft structures that shedid not include in this part of the work, and then she presents somequantitative data which show the apparent increasing of specificational cleftsfrom OE to Modern British English. In this account, the original syntacticconstraints undergo a process of “relaxation” (p. 197) which allows morefreedom both in the selection of the Focus constituent, and in the semanticand pragmatic value of the cleft clause. Elements such as abstract nouns, PPsand adverbials are increasingly more frequent in Focus position, and theembedded clause gradually acquires the possibility to introduce, in additionto presupposed information, “shared but not salient information” (p. 211) anddiscourse-new information.

In chapter 8 the author discusses the theoretical implications of hersynchronic and diachronic investigation. The developments highlighted inchapter 7 are seen as instances of extension from the prototype: while thesyntactic structure remains nearly unchanged, language use brings out newfunctions that account for the constructionalisation of the structure, whichbecomes a more schematic and productive structure. From the same structure,new and more specific forms such as informative presupposition clefts arise,through a process of semantic and pragmatic expansion. The author thenaddresses some differences between ‘it’-clefts and wh-clefts, such as thedifferent range of foci allowed by each construction, and their differentdiscourse functions: while the relative clause of an ‘it’-cleft develops aperformative function connected with discourse-old information, and itstrongly prefers noun-like expressions in focus, wh-clefts often have phrasalor adjective foci, are more connected with inferable information, and tend todevelop a presentative meaning.

Chapter 9 draws the final conclusions of the work, and indicates asterritories for further research the relationship between specification anddefiniteness, and the diachronic study of specification inversionconstructions.


The book is generally well written: a comprehensive sketch of the work isgiven in the first pages, and every step is summarized at the end of eachchapter and even in the middle in order to make the explanation very clear,especially to people who may be unfamiliar with the author’s framework. It isremarkable also that Patten always tries to compare her account with linguistsof different views on the topic, underlining points of contact as well as thedifferences.

The author’s data discussion, both in the synchronic and in the diachronicpart, is well argued and generally convincing, even though there is no doubtthat this is not an introductory manual: readers must have done previousreadings on construction grammar and on cleft sentences in order to fullyappreciate Patten’s account, but she tries her best to make it clear and easy.The only weak point is that many interesting issues that could give animportant contribution to the topic are left out because they are not socentral in the author’s analysis. For example, ‘there’-clefts are onlymarginally treated as an example of a non-exhaustive cleft, but they also seemclosely related with a presentative meaning, as in Lambrecht’s (2001) example“There’s a linguist who wants to explain clefts.”

In general, it would be interesting to compare Patten’s findings on acontrastive basis with other languages of Europe: in particular, languageswhich allow a null subject such as Italian could be a partial challenge to thediscontinuous constituent analysis. The final question arising from thereading of the book is: if cleft constructions are very similar in their formand function across many languages, what are the reasons that motivatelanguage-specific differences? Is Patten’s account extendable to otherlanguages?


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

Declerck, Renaat. 1988. Studies on copular sentences, clefts andpseudo-clefts. Leuven: Leuven University Press/Dordrecht: Foris.

Higgins, F. Roger. 1979, The pseudo-cleft construction in English. New York,Garland Publishing.

Lambrecht, Knud. 2001, “A framework for the analysis of cleft constructions”.Linguistics, 39, 3. pp. 463-516.


Since October 2012 I am a PhD student at Pavia University. My interests arelinguistic typology, sociolinguistics of the Italian dialects and languagecontact. In the past I have worked on a thesis about Latin cleft sentences,and at present I am working on the evolution of the speakers' repertory innorth-western Italy and on bilingual situations involving codeswitchingphenomena.

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