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Review of  The English it-Cleft

Reviewer: Eugenio Goria
Book Title: The English it-Cleft
Book Author: Amanda Patten
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.2146

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Amanda Patten’s work is a significant new contribution to the field of cleft constructions, a topic which has been given different theoretical and methodological treatments, but which still leaves a good number of open problems encouraging present and future research. The book consists of about 250 pages, where the author discusses English ‘it’-clefts both synchronically, focussing on structural and pragmatic properties, and diachronically, showing the development of the construction from Old to Modern English. The framework adopted is construction grammar and she fully exploits the tools provided by this approach, in that she holds a monostratal view of language structure, and in that she considers the ‘it’-cleft’s meaning as non-compositional, determined by the construction itself, and motivated both by more schematic constructions and by extension from the prototype.

In chapter 1 Patten gives an overview of the entire work, concentrating on the relevant features of ‘it’-clefts, and then discussing past literature on the topic. 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”, based on the tenet that ‘it’-clefts are an instance of a specificational sentence, where the first ‘it’ is a non-empty pronoun modified by an extraposed restrictive relative. In the author’s view, the meaning of ‘it’-clefts comes from the meaning of the more schematic ‘specificational copular sentences’, through the synchronic cognitive process which in construction grammar has been called inheritance. She rejects then the notion of syntactic derivation like the one suggested, for instance, in Akmajian (1970): in the author’s view, ‘it’-clefts are as basic as copular sentences, but they are more specific, more lexical in a lexicon-syntax continuum.

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

Chapter 3 is dedicated to specificational copular constructions. According to Higgins (1979) specification can be viewed as the function of listing the members of a set, and in the ‘inverse approach’ partly followed by the author this listing function is regarded as the inverse of nominal predication. The author addresses here the ‘NP be NP’ copular structures, pointing out the difference between ‘John is the best surgeon’ (predicative) and ‘The best surgeon is John’ (specificational). The inversion is motivated by an information structure constraint, which forces the Focus to follow the Topic, while the definiteness of the first NP accounts for the property of exhaustiveness shown by the construction. Both predicative and specificational sentences 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 a Swiss watch’), and all-clefts (‘all I bought was a Swiss watch’). Such structures 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 ‘reverse pseudo-cleft’ (‘a Swiss watch is what I bought’) no longer has to be accounted for in terms of the output of a movement rule; instead, it is described as simply inheriting from the ‘non-inversion copular construction’, a more general structure like ‘JOHN is the best surgeon’, where ‘John’ is in focus. In this way, the notion of an independent pseudocleft-construction category is totally eliminated.

Chapter 4 gives a Construction Grammar account of English ‘it’-clefts. The author provides a discontinuous constituent interpretation, according to which the embedded clause is extraposed from a definite NP whose head is the semantically underspecified element ‘it’. Patten illustrates the functional properties of ‘it’-clefts, such as the focality of the clefted constituent, its contrastiveness, the exhaustiveness of the specificational meaning, and the triggering of presupposition. She next describes the structural properties of the construction, accounting for the behaviour of the cleft clause, which seems 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 is far easier to account for if the existence of a discontinuous constituent is assumed.

In chapter 5 the author addresses less prototypical ‘it’-clefts, namely predicational clefts (‘it was an interesting meeting that I went to last night’, ‘where interesting’ is part of the predicate; cf. Declerck 1988) and proverbial clefts (‘it’s a long road that has no turns’, with the same information structure as ‘a road which has no turns is a long one’). These structures are shown to inherit their specific features from the predicate nominal construction, while their formal properties come from the ‘it’-cleft schema. She then illustrates how, in a discontinuous constituent account, the referring expression of a specificational ‘it’-cleft does not have to be an NP, allowing a non-nominal focus in post-copular position such as PP. This perspective avoids a highly idiosyncratic treatment, while it leaves open the question of the type of constituent that can enter in the construction. The third type of construction is informative presupposition ‘it’-clefts, which have the discourse pragmatic function of immediately integrating a piece of information into the hearer’s knowledge, exploiting the fixed argument structure 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 by sentence-final restrictive relative clauses. In particular, this pattern is very common with ‘hit’ (> it), which has animate reference. Sentence final position, in fact, was strongly preferred until Early Middle English. When ME began to have unextraposed relatives, ‘it’-clefts retained this ancient feature. On a historical basis, number agreement is not problematic, as ‘it/hit’ is an underspecified element that can take both singular and plural reference. Gender agreement as well gives good evidence for a discontinuous analysis: in the most frequent pattern, the only instance of gender agreement happens to be between the determinative pronoun ‘hit’, which is morphologically neuter, and the inflected relative pronoun, which is neuter as well, while the clefted constituent can be either masculine or feminine. For the author this is strong evidence that the determinative pronoun and the relative clause form a discontinuous constituent.

Chapter 7 discusses the diachronic development of the ‘it’-cleft and the conventionalisation of its form. After illustrating the structure of her corpora, the author briefly discusses some non-’it’-cleft structures that she did not include in this part of the work, and then she presents some quantitative data which show the apparent increasing of specificational clefts from OE to Modern British English. In this account, the original syntactic constraints undergo a process of “relaxation” (p. 197) which allows more freedom both in the selection of the Focus constituent, and in the semantic and pragmatic value of the cleft clause. Elements such as abstract nouns, PPs and adverbials are increasingly more frequent in Focus position, and the embedded clause gradually acquires the possibility to introduce, in addition to presupposed information, “shared but not salient information” (p. 211) and discourse-new information.

In chapter 8 the author discusses the theoretical implications of her synchronic and diachronic investigation. The developments highlighted in chapter 7 are seen as instances of extension from the prototype: while the syntactic structure remains nearly unchanged, language use brings out new functions that account for the constructionalisation of the structure, which becomes 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 then addresses some differences between ‘it’-clefts and wh-clefts, such as the different range of foci allowed by each construction, and their different discourse functions: while the relative clause of an ‘it’-cleft develops a performative function connected with discourse-old information, and it strongly prefers noun-like expressions in focus, wh-clefts often have phrasal or adjective foci, are more connected with inferable information, and tend to develop a presentative meaning.

Chapter 9 draws the final conclusions of the work, and indicates as territories for further research the relationship between specification and definiteness, and the diachronic study of specification inversion constructions.


The book is generally well written: a comprehensive sketch of the work is given in the first pages, and every step is summarized at the end of each chapter 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 is remarkable also that Patten always tries to compare her account with linguists of different views on the topic, underlining points of contact as well as the differences.

The author’s data discussion, both in the synchronic and in the diachronic part, is well argued and generally convincing, even though there is no doubt that this is not an introductory manual: readers must have done previous readings on construction grammar and on cleft sentences in order to fully appreciate 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 an important contribution to the topic are left out because they are not so central in the author’s analysis. For example, ‘there’-clefts are only marginally treated as an example of a non-exhaustive cleft, but they also seem closely 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 a contrastive basis with other languages of Europe: in particular, languages which allow a null subject such as Italian could be a partial challenge to the discontinuous constituent analysis. The final question arising from the reading of the book is: if cleft constructions are very similar in their form and function across many languages, what are the reasons that motivate language-specific differences? Is Patten’s account extendable to other languages?


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

Declerck, Renaat. 1988. Studies on copular sentences, clefts and pseudo-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 are linguistic typology, sociolinguistics of the Italian dialects and language contact. 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 in north-western Italy and on bilingual situations involving codeswitching phenomena.