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The following question is motivated by this answer at ELL. Here, I'm not interested in the correctness (that's already been answered at ELL) but in the possibility of interpreting this construction as an it-cleft.

Clefting is a construction by which a single sentence is broken up into two clauses so that the clause moved to the front receives more emphasis.

For example, given the sentence:

Police rarely arrest people without adequate suspicion.

Imagine that we want to emphasize people without adequate suspicion, then we would write:

It is people without adequate suspicion that police rarely arrest.

The question I want to ask is whether I can use an it-cleft to emphasize an adverb. In the sample sentence, imagine that we want to emphasize how rarely this happens, then we would write:

It is rarely that police arrest people without adequate suspicion.

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  • Yes you can but it sounds very tortuous and unnatural. The best English is usually the most straightforward and concise.
    – user24964
    Apr 9 '14 at 10:30
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    I can't cite an authoritative reference, but I can opine that this particular example sounds odd. One would typically expect "rare" rather than "rarely" here. On the other hand, "It is only rarely that…" sounds fine.
    – jdmc
    Jun 12 '17 at 18:45
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The question I want to ask is whether I can use an it-cleft to emphasize an adverb.

The 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, has this info for when the foregrounded element is an adverb phrase--on page 1419:

(e) AdvPs

[16]

  • i. It was only gradually that I came to realize how much I was being exploited.

  • ii. She learns sex is something sordid, [and when she experiences it for the first time herself it is incoherently, clumsily, but half shyly and half inquisitively].

  • iii. It isn't often they're as late as this.

Example [ii] here is truncated, with omission of the relative clause that she experiences it.

If you want more info, I could look into the 1985 reference grammar by Quirk et al.

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    Thanks! I was looking for some reassurance this interpretation wasn't something crazy. Your answer gives me this. (We are usually advised not to grant an answer straight away, so I will wait before I do.)
    – Nico
    Apr 9 '14 at 6:59
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    I doubt this is the whole story, though. As other answers in the ELL question show, it-clefting with adverbs like rarely simply are not used. The overt adverbs cited here are all adverbs that describe manner and thus very clearly modify the verb itself, while rarely is more of a sentential marker—its scope is bigger than just the verb, like often. For such markers, it-clefting seems to prefer switching to adjectival forms if the adverb is transparently formed. Apr 9 '14 at 7:32
  • How about "Only rarely do police arrest people without adequate suspicion."? Wouldn't this cleft sentence be more usual?
    – user58319
    Apr 9 '14 at 10:21
  • @user58319 Your example ""Only rarely do police arrest people without adequate suspicion." isn't a cleft construction, as it is a main clause headed by the verb "arrest". A cleft construction involves a main clause headed by a form of the verb "BE".
    – F.E.
    Apr 9 '14 at 21:12
  • @F.E.Right you are! What then is this type of 'detachment', of 'mise en évidence' called in English grammar?
    – user58319
    Apr 9 '14 at 21:30

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