It would be great if someone could explain this sentence structure to me:

"Why is it that you don't like me?"

I don't understand how all of the components come together.
What is the link between it and that?
Is "that you don't like me" a relative clause that modifies "it"?
Is "it" the subject?
Thank you in advance.

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  • Why is it that you don't like me?

Well, it's not surprising that this sentence confuses you. This sentence has been done things to.

To unpack this sentence, you start from the inside, like algebra. There is a tensed subordinate clause

  • you don't like me

at the end of the sentence, where it is the focus of attention.

It is introduced by a That-complementizer (this form of that does not refer to anything, and is not a relative pronoun), which is normal, though often deleted, before tensed complement clauses like this one. Note that this clause does not indicate a reason for this dislike; it does not contain a reason adverb. But it could:

  • that you don't like me because ...

This, in turn, is chopped up by an It-cleft construction

  • It is because ... that you don't like me.

that leaves a dummy subject it (again, no reference; it's like it in It's raining).

To find out what this reason ("because ...") might be, one asks a Wh-question. Why is the Wh-word that refers to a reason. To form a Wh-question, one inverts the subject (dummy it) and the auxiliary (is), and puts the appropriate Wh-word in front of the auxiliary.

  • Why is it that you don't like me?

and adds a question mark in print (but in speech, Wh-questions have no question intonation the way yes/no question do -- they sound just like statements).

There was a lot of cutting and folding in that sentence; syntax like that reminds me of origami.

  • Thank you very much for your detailed answer! I'm still a bit confused. "You don't like me" isn't an independent clause? – Kukito May 1 at 12:26
  • The sentence You don't like me, like all full sentences, is an independent clause. The clause you don't like me in the sentence Why is it that you don't like me? is a dependent clause because it's embedded in a larger full sentence. It depends on the rest of the sentence; it's not independent. OK? – John Lawler May 1 at 15:02

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