As I have been taught in China, "It be ... that ..." is a sentence structure able to emphasize certain component by placing it right after "it be", as in the following examples.

Original: My father teaches me responsibility by giving me a pet.

Emphasize Subject: It is my father that teaches me responsibility by giving me a pet.

Emphasize Direct Object: It is me that my father teaches responsibility by giving me a pet.

Emphasize Indirect Object: It is responsibility that my father teaches me by giving me a pet.

Emphasize Adverbial Modifier: It is by giving me a pet that my father teaches me responsibility.

The structure seems syntactically correct, yet it is rarely seen in literature or English texts on the internet.

Is there anything grammatically wrong or stylistically inelegant about this structure? Thank you very much!

  • 1
    It's not rare at all, just less common than non-cleft sentences. In some languages cleft sentences are extremely common, like Welsh and Gaelic, and especially in Ireland you're likely to hear more cleft sentences in English (due to influence from Gaelic) than in other English-speaking areas. Apr 1, 2017 at 9:27

1 Answer 1


This structure is grammatically termed as Cleft Sentence. The cleft sentences are created to emphasize different information denoted by different components of sentences. There is nothing ungrammatical or non-idiomatic with regard to its usage.

The definition of the Cleft Sentence by the dictionary.com:

a sentence in which a simpler sentence is paraphrased by being divided into two parts, each with its own verb, in order to emphasize certain information, especially a sentence beginning with expletive it and a form of be followed by the information being emphasized, as

It was a mushroom that Alice ate instead of Alice ate a mushroom.

From English Grammar Today (Cambridge Dictionary)

We use cleft sentences, especially in speaking, to connect what is already understood to what is new to the listener. In a cleft sentence, a single message is divided (cleft) into two clauses. This allows us to focus on the new information.

  • It-cleft sentences:

It-clauses are the most common type of cleft clause. The information that comes after it is emphasised for the listener. The clause which follows the it-clause is connected using that and it contains information that is already understood. We often omit that in informal situations when it is the object of the verb:

A: Sharon’s car got broken into yesterday, did it?

B: No. It was Nina’s car that got broken into!

Focus (new information): it was Nina’s car.

Understood already (old information): a car got broken into

A: You’ve met my mother, haven’t you?

B: No, it was your sister (that) I met!

Focus (new information): it was your sister.

Understood already (old information): I met someone in your family

Is it August that you are going on holiday?

Focus (new information): the month August?

Understood already (old information): you are going on holiday

When a personal subject is the focus, we can use who instead of that. We often omit who in informal situations when it is the object of the verb:

It was my husband who (or that) you spoke to on the phone. (or It was my husband you spoke to on the phone.)

When a plural subject is the focus, we use a plural verb but It + be remains singular:

It’s the parents who were protesting most.

We can use negative structures in the it-clause:

It wasn’t the Greek student who phoned.

  • Wh-cleft sentences:

Wh-cleft sentences are most often introduced by what, but we can also use why, where, how, etc. The information in the wh-clause is typically old or understood information, while the information in the following clause is new and in focus:

A: I don’t know what to cook for them? I don’t know what they like.

B:What they like is smoked salmon.

Understood already (old information): we are talking about what they like to eat

Focus (new information): they like smoked salmon.

A: This remote control isn’t working.

B: What we need to do is get new batteries for it.

Understood already (old information): there is something that we need to do to fix the remote control.

Focus (new information): we need to buy new batteries.

  • Thank you mahmud! First time knowing the term "Cleft Sentence". This is very helpful. So I guess it is more often used in conversations.
    – Yuyang Z
    Apr 2, 2017 at 1:48

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