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Review of  Cleft Structures

Reviewer: Avelino Corral Esteban
Book Title: Cleft Structures
Book Author: Katharina Hartmann Tonjes Veenstra
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 25.3041

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This book consists of a collection of 11 papers that aims at shedding light on the analysis and interpretation of cleft constructions by addressing different aspects of these constructions in a range of languages from new theoretical and empirical perspectives.

The introductory chapter, written by Katharina Hartmann and Tonjes Veenstra (the editors of this volume), lays the foundation for the remainder of the book. It presents a general review of previous work on clefts and discusses fundamental issues regarding their typological variation, giving an overview on views on their origin, their syntactic structure, discourse functions, semantic interpretation and their prosodic characteristics. The chapter concludes by presenting a summary of the remaining 11 articles included in this volume.

The remainder of the book is organized into three main sections. Part I (Chapters 1 to 3) focuses on the interpretation of cleft constructions as specificational or predicational sentences. Issues regarding the syntactic representation of clefts and the internal structure of their constituents are analyzed in Part II (Chapters 4 to 6). Finally, Part III (Chapters 7 to 11) examines mostly the information structure of clefts. There is also a language index and a subject index. Below is a chapter-by-chapter summary of the 11 chapters.

In Chapter 1, Marcel den Dikken, in his paper entitled “Predication and specification in the syntax of cleft sentences,” transfers the distinction between predication and specification from copular sentences (Higgins, 1979) to the realm of clefts, by applying the three criteria (i.e. word order, control, distribution of the copula in non-finite predications embedded under propositional attitude predicates) used by Higgins in order to claim that a predicational / specificational distinction also holds in the domain of “it”-clefts. Thus, den Dikken provides an original analysis of “it”-clefts by arguing that: 1) specificational “it”-clefts are a particular subtype of inverse specificational copular sentences where “it” acts as a pro-predicate, which inverts its position with its subject by means of syntactic derivation; 2) in contrastive-focus “it”-clefts, the pro-predicate “it” takes the projection of the focus as its subject and the cleft clause is a headless relative clause structurally related to the projection focus via asyndetic specification, rather than predication; and 3) in continuous-topic “it”-clefts, both the value and the relative constitute the focus of the cleft that occupies the subject position of the construction whose predicate is the pro-predicate “it”.

Edith Aldridge analyzes the relationship between “wh”-clefts and verb-initial word order in Austronesian languages, arguing that there is a parallelism between the derivation of basic word order in verb-initial languages and the fact that “wh”-questions are formed on clefts in a broad range of these languages. In the first case, the absolutive DP moves to a topic position in the left periphery and the remnant TP is fronted to a higher focus position above the topic, which derives the VOS word order. Regarding the formation of clefts, the cleft clause, which is a headless relative, is treated as the topic, whereas the “wh”-word forms part of the predicate, since it is contained in the fronted remnant TP, which moves to the focus position. Therefore, Aldridge argues that the focus must be part of the predicate and consequently is not the subject. Likewise, this positioning leads to a bi-clausal analysis that accounts for the irreversibility of clefts in these languages.

In “Pseudo-clefts at the syntax-prosody-discourse interface,”Mara Frascarelli and Francesca Ramaglia take an interface approach to the study of “it”-cleft and pseudo cleft constructions by investigating their syntactic, semantic, discourse and intonational properties cross-linguistically. In contrast to the general (traditional) view that the relative clause corresponds to the predicate of the relevant copular sentence and the focused element acts as the subject in a small clause, these authors argue that it is the clefted constituent that has the properties of a main predicate in a copular construction and that the relative DP is a dislocated constituent, namely as a right-hand Topic in “it”-clefts and a left-hand Topic in pseudoclefts, which explains their presuppositional behavior in the construction.

Lisa L.-S. Cheng and Laura Downing´s paper “Clefts in Durban Zulu” is a study of the structure of clefts in this aboriginal Bantu language spoken in South Africa. According to these authors, clefts in this language are bi-clausal structures involving a copular sentence formed by a copula and a cleft phrase, and an adjoined DP or an adjoined adverbial clause, depending on whether the cleft phrase is nominal or non-nominal respectively. These two constituents are not only syntactically independent from each other, but also in prosodic terms, since each forms an independent intonational phrase. Likewise, following Adger and Ramchand´s (2005) assumption for a special copular sentence (i.e. the augmented copular construction) in Scottish Gaelic, they claim that the copula is the head of a predicate phrase which hosts the cleft phrase in its specifier and has a null pronominal element as its predicate. Thus, the adjoined element provides a definite description for the interpretation of the variable in the semantic representation of the pronominal predicate.

Matthew Reeve, in “The cleft pronoun and cleft clause in English”, provides new evidence on the nature of the cleft pronoun, the interpretation of the cleft clause, and the relation between the clefted element and the cleft clause. Based on Hedberg (2000), Reeve firstly offers a great number of syntactic and semantic arguments for an analysis of the cleft pronoun as a referential pronoun, and not as an expletive, and claims that both the cleft pronoun and the cleft phrase form a discontinuous definite description, which reflects the structural similarity between clefts and specificational sentences. Yet, the author departs from the traditional specificational analyses on claiming that the cleft clause is a restrictive relative clause functions as a modifier of the cleft phrase, to which it is adjoined, and therefore it cannot be extraposed from the cleft pronoun. Finally, Reeve compares both relative clauses and clefts in terms of connectivity effects to show that DP-clefts (and some PP-clefts) are derivationally ambiguous since they may present two different structures: one structure where the clefted constituent occurs in postcopular position and another in which the clefted constituent is raised from inside the cleft clause.

Harold Torrence explores “The morphosyntax of Wolof clefts” in terms of their structural and movement properties. In Wolof, a Congo-Niger language spoken in Senegal and the Gambia, there exist two syntactically different types of clefts, depending on whether the clefted element functions as subject of the construction or not. As regards their internal structure, the copula, the head of the copular phrase, of a subject cleft occurs with a TP-structure, while its counterpart in a non-subject cleft occurs with a CP-like structure. Torrence provides detailed evidence that the cleft phrase undergoes overt A´- movement, via SpecCopP in subject clefts or directly in non-subject clefts, to the cleft position (SpecFocP). This fact shows that clefts in this language resemble their English counterparts since in both languages clefting involves A´- movement. However, they also differ in that in Wolof clefting does not involve the presence of a silent operator.

Nancy Hedberg examines the information structure of English clefts in a paper entitled “Multiple focus and cleft sentences”. Assuming that the syntax of clefts reflects the semantic interpretation, she takes a bi-clausal analysis of clefts to show that the two semantic units of a cleft construction, that is the exhaustive focus and the pragmatic presupposition, are mapped onto the two syntactic constituents, namely the clefted element and the cleft clause. Next, she provides a detailed analysis of the two semantic elements -- the exhaustive focus and the pragmatic presupposition -- in terms of their informational properties to illustrate that clefts can display distinct types of organization, that is topic-comment and comment-topic, which reflect the distinction made by Prince (1978) between ´informative presupposition` and ´stressed focus`. Thus, in topic-comment clefts the cleft clause carries the primary sentence accent and presents information that is new in the discourse. By contrast, in comment-topic clefts, the cleft clause expresses an activated presupposition and the clefted element, which usually carries the primary sentence accent, expresses a focus that is used to make a correction, to answer a question, or to present a contrast. In addition to these two types, Hedberg examines three subtypes of clefts that contain prosodic prominence on both the clefted constituent and the cleft clause (i.e. all-comment organization) and shows that the prosodic focus in both cases can be considered to present semantic focus in the sense of Krifka (1992, 2007). Thus, a prosodic focus on the clefted constituent can be associated with the exhaustive focus operator, whereas a prosodic focus on the cleft clause can be associated with an assertive focus operator. In addition, the focus particles ´only` and ´also` / ´even` can also appear if the prosodic focus is on the clefted element and the cleft clause respectively. A prosodic focus on the entire cleft proposition can possibly be associated with the assertive focus operator and may also associate with a focus particle.

Rosmin Matthew, in a paper called “Recursion of Focus Position in Malayalam” explores cleft constructions in Malayalam, a Dravidian language spoken in South India, especially focusing on their focus-related properties by adopting a mono-clausal analysis. By means of a comparison between clefts, which involve the focus marker “a:nu”, and another type of focus non-cleft construction, she gains a better understanding of the proposed focus position for two domains, namely, CP in clefts and vP in non-clefts. Her analysis presents morphological, syntactic and semantic evidence that these two positions involve a different syntactic behavior and distinct Information Structure properties of Focus. Thus, whereas cleft constructions with the focus marker “a:nu” involve a higher position at the left periphery of the CP and express Exhaustive Focus, non-cleft constructions involve a preverbal Focus position and expresses Information Focus. Consequently, the author shows that the two positions available for the Focus, namely, in the vP level (i.e. in the lower IP area) and in the CP level (i.e. in the left periphery), encode Information Structure of a different nature, and, therefore, it would be wrong to assume that the same Information Structure appears recursively at every Phase, at least for this language.

In “Multiple ´wh`- questions and the cleft construction in Malayalam”, Punnapurath Maadhavan, also examines the formation of “wh”-questions in Malayalam. Despite the commonly held view that Malayalam is a “wh”-in-situ language, Maadhavan presents detailed evidence that “wh”-questions can also be formed by means of a different strategy: 1) clefting the “wh”-element or 2) clefting the whole cleft clause containing the “wh”-element, with the clefted element occupying the cleft focus. In addition to this, Maadhavan also observes an interesting asymmetry regarding the formation of “wh”-questions: unlike the strategy of clefting, which may occur in both matrix and embedded clauses, it is not possible to have an in-situ “wh”-phrase in an embedded context, in this case the only option being to cleft the whole embedded clause. Consequently, these proposals are not only significant for their contribution to the study of clefts in this language, but also because they provide valuable insight into the cross-linguistic typology of “wh”-questions, leading to the conclusion that a finer-grained typological account than that dealing with the dichotomy between “wh”-in-situ languages and “wh”-moving languages is required.

In “Cleft partitioning in Japanese, Burmese and Chinese”, Daniel Hole and Malte Zimmermann provide a comparative account of clefts in these three (South) East Asian languages that, despite showing typological variation in terms of several morpho-syntactic (e.g. word order, case marking, among others) and phonological parameters (e.g. tone system), they all exhibit clefts displaying syntactic cleft partitioning, which in these languages involves a backgrounded clause headed by a nominalized element. Yet, the author notes some differences between Japanese and Burmese, on the one hand, and Chinese, on the other hand, regarding the position of the copula, the relationship between the different constituents of the cleft construction, and its interpretation. Thus, in Japanese and Burmese, the copula follows the cleft clause and the cleft focus phrase, with which it forms a constituent, which in its turn is opposed to the cleft clause, thereby illustrating an example of syntactic partitioning; the nominalizer heads the backgrounded cleft clause and is followed by a topic marker. By contrast, in Chinese, the copula precedes the complete cleft construction; the nominalizer is the element responsible for the linking of the cleft phrase with the cleft clause and therefore it is also the element that triggers the syntactic partition. Finally, they show that syntactic partitioning in the form of clefting leads to an exhaustive interpretation in all three languages, although the exhaustivity effect in Japanese and Burmese is linked to the presence of the Topic marker attached to the nominalized cleft clause, unlike in Chinese where the exhaustivity effect is tied to the nominalizer de.

In the final paper, Italian clefts and the licensing of infinitival subject relatives”, Petra Sleeman analyzes the licensing of infinitival subject relative clauses by clefted constituents. The author shows that, unlike in English or French, infinitival subject relatives are not only licensed by superlatives and comparable modifiers, but they are also licensed by cleft constructions with clefted DPs and two types of cleft constructions with clefted quantifiers. In order to account for this fact, Sleeman provides detailed syntactic evidence that clefts in Italian are used with a somewhat negative presupposition and therefore express a contrastive focus, which allows these constructions to license infinitival subject relative clauses. Furthermore, regarding the structure of clefts in this language, she adds that the infinitival relative clause functions as the complement of the cleft phrase - which is in a high position- , rather than an adjunct, since, except when it occurs with one type of “che”-cleft, the infinitival relative clause allows for extraction from it.


This book is inspired by the conference “Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft”, which took place in November 2008 in Berlin, but it is not only a relevant selection of papers. A great effort was made in the review process in order to strengthen links between the different papers and the final result makes this book a useful resource for scholars and advanced students who are interested in cleft constructions.

This volume provides the reader with a comprehensive picture of research trends on clefts, and consequently, the overall goal of this book, which consists in solving the problems derived from the interaction between syntax, semantics and pragmatics in the analysis and interpretation of cleft constructions, is met with incredible success.

One of the strongest assets of this volume is that it brings together a wide array of contributors (all top scholars in the field) to successfully represent current research trends in a coherent fashion. The assortment of languages and the wide range of aspects dealt with in this edited volume is indicative of just how much the study of clefts has advanced since Akmajian (1970), Chomsky (1977) and Gundel (1977). Each chapter guides the reader to the study of a specific aspect of this construction in a particular language and addresses questions that outline the current state of knowledge and offer future lines of research. Therefore, not only do these chapters offer important insights into the origin, structure, and meaning of clefts, but they also provide the reader with the necessary background information to further explore and develop a greater understanding of the issues that are of relevance to each of those lines of research that arise from this book. Despite the fact that it is very difficult to make strong cross-linguistic claims regarding this construction and many questions related to its structure may remain unsolved and therefore they will have to be dealt with in future research, the findings obtained in this volume mean a relevant step forward in the direction of the right analysis of this construction. While the variety of languages and the methodological diversity of this compilation are notable, it may perhaps be most appropriate for audiences interested in studying this construction through a generative lens. This book includes a wide range of examples of cleft constructions in languages belonging to many different families, such as Indo-European, Austronesian, Bantu, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, Altaic, and Dravidian. The editors´ clear and thorough introduction highlights the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic aspects that make this construction so challenging for theoretical analysis. Afterwards, all the chapters in the book offer a wealth of new data on the analysis of this construction that contribute to our current understanding of the issue.

Summarized below are the most relevant findings included in these papers. Firstly, den Dikken transfers the distinction between specificational and predicational copular sentences to the analysis of cleft constructions and examines the syntactic structure of specificational “it”-clefts, contrastive-focus “it”-clefts, and continuous-topic “it”-clefts. Aldridge accounts for the derivation of clefted “wh”-questions by comparing it to the derivation of basic word order in VOS languages and argues that the absolutive DP is a topic that moves to the left periphery and the remnant clause is fronted to a focus position above the topic. Frascarelli and Ramaglia offer an interface approach to the cross-linguistic interpretation of pseudo and “it”-cleft constructions at different levels of analysis that supports the view that (pseudo) cleft sentences are Topic-Comment structures that may host different types of topics either in the left or in the right periphery . Cheng and Downing accounts for the syntactic properties of Zulu clefts by analysing their prosodic properties, which leads to their analysis as copular sentences with an adjoined DP/CP, depending on the type of pivot. Reeve argues against both specificational analyses and expletive analyses of English clefts by claiming that the cleft clause functions as a syntactic modifier of the clefted element and that the cleft pronoun is non-expletive. Torrence offers two different types of syntactic structure for clefts in Wolof, according to their syntactic function, and examines their derivation on the basis of the overt movement of their clefted constituent. Hedberg discusses the information structure of English clefts by examining how the semantic components of exhaustive focus and pragmatic presupposition map onto the categories of topic and comment, which leads to an analysis of certain types of clefts as multiple focus constructions. Mathew analyses the two different types of Focus, namely Identificational Focus and Information Focus, in Malayalam clefts by focusing on the position that these two different types of Focus occupy in their respective domains. Madhavan provides a typological account of clefted “wh”-questions in Malayalam to prove that this language is not a typical “wh” in-situ language like Chinese. Hole and Zimmermann compare clefts and other focus strategies in Japanese, Burmese and Mandarin Chinese, showing that, despite having different morpho-syntactic features, these languages share the fact that clefts and related focus constructions involve backgrounded clauses headed by a nominalizing element. Finally, Sleeman examines the infinitival subject relative clauses licensed by clefted constituents and argues that the reason why clefts in Italian, unlike in other languages, are able to license the infinitival relative is due to the fact that they express a contrastive focus, just like superlatives and comparable modifiers.

This volume is certainly not an introductory book owing to the complicated material included and consequently a solid knowledge of the specific linguistic issues (as well as knowledge of generative grammar) is required. It includes one of the most complete and in-depth analyses of the topic to date. Its rigor and clarity as well as the significance and relevance of its contribution to the study of such a complicated linguistic issue will make this book useful and challenging to students and researchers alike who are interested in cleft constructions across languages.

In conclusion, the papers collected in “Cleft structures” highlight a great number of aspects of cleft constructions that should be taken into account in future research and therefore I believe that this volume will become an important reference on the matter.


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

Chomsky, Noam. 1977. On wh-movement. In Formal Syntax. Peter Culicover, Thomas Wasow & Adrian Akmajian (eds), 71-132. New York NY: Academic Press.

Cottell, Siobhán. 2002. The Comparative Syntax of Cleft Constructions. Ph. D. dissertation. University of Wales, Bangor.

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.

Gundel, Jeannette. 1977. Where do cleft structures come from? Language 53: 543-559.

Halvorsen, Per-Kristian. 1978. The Syntax and Semantics of Clefts. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas.

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

Heggie, Lorie. 1988. The Syntax of Copular Sentences. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Southern California.

Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information Structure and Sentence Form, Topic, Focus, and the Mental Representations of Discourse Referents. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 71. Cambridge: CUP.

Lambrecht, Knud. 2001. A framework for the analysis of cleft constructions. Linguistics 28(3): 463-516.

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.

Reeve, Matthew. 2011. The syntactic structure of English clefts. Lingua 121: 142:171.

Reeve, Matthew. 2012. Clefts and their Relatives. Amsterdam. John Benjamins.

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 Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and 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.