Author Topic: When even the passive voice won’t do  (Read 7841 times)

Joe Carillo

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When even the passive voice won’t do
« on: June 29, 2022, 07:01:34 PM »
There are times when we’ll find both the active voice and the passive voice falling short of giving us the desired emphasis for a statement. That’s when we take recourse to a the cleft sentence, so-called because it “cleaves” or splits a single-clause sentence into two clauses for semantic emphasis or style. It’s the written equivalent of making our voice louder to draw attention to the most important points of what we are saying.

Cleft sentences take two common forms. The first is the “it” cleft, which exhibits the pattern “It + be + [subject of focus] + [action or defining clause],” as in “It was the accusers themselves who fudged the data.” The other is the pseudo-cleft or “wh-” cleft, which normally takes the form “Wh- + [subject]  + [verb] + [form of be] + [rest of the predicate],” as in “What she did was a wonderful thing.” To achieve a stronger, defensive emphasis, each of them departs from these respective usual declarative forms: “The accusers themselves fudged the data.” “She did a wonderful thing.”


The “it” cleft. The often-derided and supposedly empty function word “it” can work to highlight an object of special focus, or theme, with the sentence assuming the tone and form of a statement seeking to correct someone’s wrong idea. The negator “no” or “not,” if unstated, can normally be presumed to precede it. For instance, someone may have just said this pointedly: “The accused, Your Honor, fudged the data.” The defensive—often outraged—reply would likely be an “it” cleft: “No, Your Honor, it was the accusers themselves who fudged the data.”

An “it”-cleft sentence always has a dependent clause introduced by the subordinators “that” or “who” or by none at all, and that dependent clause normally ends the sentence for emphasis: “It was her that I wanted all along.” “It is Alberto who can make things possible for us.” “No, my dear, it is our son sleeping on the sofa.”

Like the plain passive-voice construction, the “it”-cleft gives wide latitude in emphasizing any of the following in the scheme of things: the actor, the indirect or direct object, or the act itself. For instance, the simple declarative “The judge gave the erring lawyer a sharp rebuke” can take these three “if”-cleft forms: “It was the judge that gave the erring lawyer a sharp rebuke.” “It was the erring lawyer that the judge sharply rebuked.” “It was a sharp rebuke that the erring lawyer got from the judge.”

The pseudo-cleft or “wh-” cleft. This construction takes both the main verb and theme (main idea) of the sentence, fashions them into a noun clause, and uses that noun clause to begin the sentence. Instead of  “it,” however, the pseudo-cleft uses “what” to introduce that clause. By an alchemy similar to the “it” cleft’s, the pseudo-cleft can do these variations to this simple declarative sentence: “We brought Eve some luscious fruits.”

Emphasizing the direct object (“luscious fruits”) from the doer’s (“we”) standpoint: “What we brought to Eve were luscious fruits.” “What were brought by us to Eve were luscious fruits.”

Emphasizing the direct object from the receiver’s (“Eve’s”) standpoint: “What Eve got from us were luscious fruits.” “What we did was to bring luscious fruits to Eve.”

Emphasizing all the elements: “What happened was that we brought luscious fruits to Eve.”   

Clefts are potent, high-energy devices for achieving emphasis, but we must use them sparingly and with restraint—certainly not as habitual forms of expressing ourselves. To overuse them is to trivialize not only the very things we want to emphasize but the rest of our composition as well.
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This is a condensation of an 825-word essay on cleft sentences that I wrote sometime in 2005.

This essay, 2105th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the June 30, 2022 digital edition of The Manila Times, ©2022 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this essay online in The Manila Times:
When even the passive voice won’t do

(Next week: The virtue of elliptical constructions)             July 7, 2022

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. You can follow me on Facebook  and Twitter and e-mail me at j8carillo@yahoo.com.
« Last Edit: July 07, 2022, 09:11:34 AM by Joe Carillo »

Miss Mae

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Re: When even the passive voice won’t do
« Reply #1 on: July 03, 2022, 04:00:47 PM »
When using “it”-cleft sentences, Sir, wouldn't I be questioned on the antecedent of it?

Joe Carillo

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Re: When even the passive voice won’t do
« Reply #2 on: July 04, 2022, 03:09:03 PM »
So I can answer your question meaningfully, please give at least two examples of the "it"-cleft sentences you have in mind in which you might be questioned about the antecedent of the "it."
« Last Edit: July 05, 2022, 09:01:18 AM by Joe Carillo »

Miss Mae

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Re: When even the passive voice won’t do
« Reply #3 on: July 05, 2022, 04:02:31 PM »
Like in your example sentences, Sir:

1. “No, Your Honor, it was the accusers themselves who fudged the data.”

2. “It was her that I wanted all along.”

Or, do you mean to say that in “it”-cleft sentences, it is not functioning as a pronoun?


Joe Carillo

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Re: When even the passive voice won’t do
« Reply #4 on: July 06, 2022, 01:04:02 PM »
The word "it" in an "it"-cleft sentence is entirely different from the word "it" commonly used as a subject or object to mean "that one"--definitely not the "it" that's used as subject in such a sentence as "There's a ruckus outside and it is getting louder.". This being the case, rarely if at all will the "it" in an "it"-cleft sentence need an antecedent noun about which you could be questioned, as in the "it"-cleft sentence “It was the judge that gave the erring lawyer a sharp rebuke.” The statement itself has just confirmed it.

As explained by the Forum article about how the "it"-cleft works, this particular “it” works to highlight an object of special focus, or theme, with the sentence typically assuming the tone and form of a statement seeking to correct someone’s wrong idea. The negator “no” or “not,” if unstated, can normally be presumed to precede it. For instance, someone may have just said this pointedly: “The accused, Your Honor, fudged the data.” The defensive—often outraged—reply would likely be an “it” cleft: “No, Your Honor, it was the accusers themselves who fudged the data.” There would be be no need for anyone to look for or argue for another alternative antecedent noun for the "it" because it's already obvious and clearly given or confirmed by the speaker.

This may take some time to digest and fully understand  but I trust that this will adequately clarify the difference between the "it" in an "it"-cleft sentence and the usual anticipatory "it" that means "that one."
« Last Edit: July 07, 2022, 08:42:37 AM by Joe Carillo »

Miss Mae

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Re: When even the passive voice won’t do
« Reply #5 on: July 06, 2022, 08:18:27 PM »
I see. Thank you for explaining.