12

I have a question about it-cleft and extraposition. For example the two sentences:

  1. It was in the apartment that Ben found something interesting -- a mouse eating cheese.
  2. It was obvious that whenever the cake was done, my brother wouldn't eat it unless his father came home.

I am confused about how to identify these two variants. Does it relate to the function of the phrases? Thank you!

2
  • 3
    The most telling difference is that in an it cleft the backgrounnded element is expressed as a relative clause while the foregrounded element functions as complement of "be". There is normally no relative clause in an extraposition construction.
    – BillJ
    Nov 1, 2022 at 16:36
  • 2
    This question has great answers. Why are people trying to close it?
    – Davo
    Nov 2, 2022 at 14:31

4 Answers 4

17
  1. It is clear [that Ben ate the cheese]. (extraposition)
  2. It is Ben [that ate the cheese]. (it-cleft)

The examples above look very similar. They both have a meaningless dummy pronoun, it, as Subject, and they both have similar looking clauses that appear at the end of the sentence. However, although similar, they are not the same.

Extrapositions

We don't like to use clauses as Subjects, because they are difficult for listeners to process. These examples are grammatical, but they're clunky:

  • [That Ben ate the cheese] is clear.
  • [To hang out with you friends] is nice.
  • [Whether the chicken got to the other side] is not known.

The extraposition construction is a way of making the sentence more fluid and easier to process. This construction simply puts a meaningless dummy it, in the Subject position and shunts the clause down to the end of the sentence where it's easier to process:

  1. It's clear [(that) Ben ate the cheese].
  2. It's nice [to hang out with your friends].
  3. It is not known [whether the chicken got to the other side].

It-clefts

It-clefts break a sentence into two parts. They foreground, or put into focus, one particular phrase and they 'background' the rest of the sentence.

They are called it-clefts because they use the pronoun it as a meaningless dummy subject of the verb be. They are 'clefts' because the rest of the sentence is cleft into two parts, where one appears as the complement of the verb be and the rest of the sentence appears as a relative clause at the end of the sentence.

Compare the following:

  1. Boris danced naked.
  2. It was [Boris] [that [danced naked]].

In (7) the word Boris no longer appears as the Subject. Instead it appears as the Complement of was. This word is now the focus of the sentence and is more prominent than it is in (6). Here, that danced naked is less prominent. It might already have been mentioned in the previous conversation. It definitely is not new news to everybody that someone danced naked here.

Notice, also, that the relative clause after the word that has a gap in it where the Subject would normally be:

  1. It was Boris that [danced naked.]

This gap corresponds with (it is co-indexed with) the phrase after the verb be:

  1. It was Boris that [Boris danced naked]
  2. It was Borisi that [__i danced naked]

The phrase after the verb be is often contrastive in flavour. You might well understand this sentence to mean something like:

  1. It was Boris (not Matt, or someone else) who danced naked.

Tests to tell extrapositions from it-clefts

In the following section [ * ] indicates that the example is ungrammatical.

Firstly, you can always replace a Subject it in an extraposition construction with the clause at the end of the sentence:

  1. It is clear [that Ben ate the cheese]. (extraposition)

  2. [That Ben ate the cheese] is clear.

  3. It is Ben [that ate the cheese].(it-cleft)

  4. *[That ate the cheese] is Ben.

Secondly, if the clause at the end of the sentence is a non-finite clause (it doesn't have a tensed verb), then it is an extraposition, not an it-cleft:

  1. It is not unusual [to see Boris dance naked]. (no tensed verb-->extraposition)

Third, if the clause at the end of the sentence is an interrogative clause, it is an extraposition, not an it-cleft:

  1. It is not clear [whether Rishi danced naked] (interrogative whether-->extraposition)

Fourth, if the clause at the end of an extraposition is a tensed declarative clause, then you can always omit the word that:

  1. It is clear that Ben ate the cheese. (extraposition)

  2. It is clear Ben ate the cheese.

  3. It was Ben that ate the cheese. (it-cleft)

  4. *It was Ben ate the cheese. ungrammatical in standard English

Fifth, a declarative, tensed clause at the end of an extraposition (excluding the word that, if present) will always be a well-formed clause, which could stand as a sentence in its own right:

  1. It is clear that [Ben ate the cheese]. (extraposition)

  2. Ben ate the cheese.

  3. It is Ben that [ate the cheese]. it-cleft

  4. *Ate the cheese.

Sixth, the word that in an extraposition cannot be replaced by a wh-word such as who or which. In an it-cleft it often can be:

  1. It is clear that Ben ate the cheese. (extraposition)

  2. *It is clear who Ben ate the cheese.

  3. It was Ben that ate the cheese. it-cleft

  4. It was Ben who ate the cheese.

Seventh, an it-cleft has a relative clause with a gap in it at the end of the sentence. The gap is co-indexed with the complement of the verb. be, as discussed further above. If you take the relative clause and plug it with the complement of the verb be, you should get a well-formed sentence:

  1. It was [Ben] that [ __ ate the cheese] it-cleft
  2. [Ben] ate the cheese.

There is no gap in the clause at the end of an extraposition, so you can't fill it with the other phrase. But if you try to squish the two together regardless the result is usually ungrammatical:

  1. It was [clear] that [Ben ate the cheese].
  2. *Clear Ben ate the cheese.
  3. *Ben ate the cheese clear.

The Original Poster's examples

  1. It was in the apartment [that Ben found something interesting -- a mouse eating cheese].
  1. It was obvious [that whenever the cake was done, my brother wouldn't eat it unless his father came home].

The easiest test we can do here is to see whether we can replace the dummy subject it with the that-clause that appears at the end of the examples, without changing the meaning:

  1. [That Ben found something interesting -- a mouse eating cheese] was in the apartment.

This is nonsense and so shows that (32) is an it-cleft and not an extraposition. Let's see what happens to (33):

  1. [That, whenever the cake was done, my brother wouldn't eat it unless his father came home] was obvious.

This is certainly very ugly and ungraceful (which is why we have extrapositions in the first place), but it is grammatical. Of course, the longer the subject clause, the more ungraceful such a sentence will be.

Let's try the omitting that test:

36 It was obvious, whenever the cake was done, my brother wouldn't eat it unless his father came home.

That seems as good as the original sentence, and suggests it is an extraposition. Lastly, let's try the fifth test. If this is an extraposition, the clause after the word that should be able to work as a stand-alone sentence:

  1. Whenever the cake was done, my brother wouldn't eat it unless his father came home.

This seems to clinch it. This works fine and strongly suggests that the original sentence is an extraposition.

20
  • So can I understand like this, for example, the structure "It BE X that Y", when the X element cannot be deleted, then it's an it-cleft? However, it is an extraposition when the sentence still makes sense even though the X element can be deleted. e.g. "in the apartment" acts as an adjunct in the sample sentence, while "obvious" acts as a complement...?( I am not sure)
    – Arlo
    Nov 2, 2022 at 2:16
  • 1
    I notice a potential ambiguity in 36 -- does "whenever..." refer to when it became obvious, or when he wouldn't eat it? "that" removes the ambiguity.
    – Barmar
    Nov 2, 2022 at 15:40
  • @Barmar I certainly agree. Luckily the original reading is one of the ones still available! I wonder if removing the comma after done would force the desired reading? Nov 2, 2022 at 15:44
  • Yes, it seems like it would. Conversely, removing the comma before whenever would force the alternate reading.
    – Barmar
    Nov 2, 2022 at 17:50
  • 1
    @Arlo No, I don't think so. If you delete the X, the sentence will. be ungrammatical in both cases. Nov 2, 2022 at 23:14
6

The phrase immediately after 'be' in the cleft construction is always related to a position inside the that-clause:

  1. It was in the apartment that Ben found something interesting. -> Ben found something interesting in the apartment.
  2. It was Sam that won the race. -> Sam won the race.
  3. It was the garage that the storm destroyed. -> The storm destroyed the garage.

This is never the case in the extraposition structure: (I'll keep your terminology here, but it's likely that this is not really a case of extraposition in the sense that the term is used in other contexts.)

  1. It was obvious that Sam was mad. -> * Sam was mad obvious.
  2. It was unfortunate that the storm destroyed the garage. -> * The storm destroyed the garage unfortunate.

As a consequence of this fact, cleft constructions allow wh-phrases instead of the complementizer 'that':

  1. It was Sam who won the race.
  2. It was the garage which was destroyed by the storm.

Extraposition doesn't allow this

  1. *It was obvious who Sam was mad.
  2. *It was unfortunate which the storm destroyed the garage.

In the extraposition structure, the clause can replace the 'it' pronoun in subject position:

  1. It was obvious that Sam was mad. -> That Sam was mad was obvious.
  2. It was unfortunate that the storm destroyed the garage. -> That the storm destroyed the garage was unfortunate.

This is not possible in the cleft construction:

  1. It was in the apartment that Ben found something interesting. -> * That Ben found something interesting was in the apartment.
  2. It was Sam that won the race. -> * That won the race was Sam.
  3. It was the garage that the storm destroyed. -> * That the storm destroyed was the garage.
3
  • 1
    Why call it a 'that clause' when it's actually a relative clause that may be introduced by a wh pronoun instead of "that"?
    – BillJ
    Nov 1, 2022 at 16:54
  • 2
    @BillJ Because the question is about the superficial similarity between extraposition and clefts, both of which involve a that clause. Calling it a relative clause presupposes an analysis and makes the diagnostics I'm giving less clear, IMO. Also, depending on what you think a relative clause is, the clause in a cleft may not exactly be a relative clause, although it shares many similar properties. One major difference is that non-restrictive relative clauses (which is the kind of relative clause the cleft would have to be) can't use that, whereas clefts obviously can.
    – Alan Munn
    Nov 1, 2022 at 17:35
  • 1
    Extraposed clauses are not always content clauses (your that clause). They can also be infinitivals or interrogatives. The backgrounded element in an it cleft is always expressed in a relative clause. That's an invariable feature of an it cleft. The relative clause is of the integrated type, though it doesn't have the same modificational properties of a non-cleft integrated relative. Being integrated, it can be introduced by the subordinator "that". Further, it would seem perverse to call the relative clause a that clause since it may also be a wh relative.
    – BillJ
    Nov 1, 2022 at 18:20
5

Let's start with simpler examples, so the differences stand out. The easiest difference to spot between the two rules is that Extraposition inserts one dummy word, while It-cleft inserts three. I'll boldface the inserted words below.

  1. Extraposition:
    It was obvious [that the cake was done].
    comes from
    [That the cake was done] was obvious.
    Extraposition moves the heavy subject clause [that the cake was done] to the end, leaving dummy it behind to serve as Subject.

  2. It-Cleft:
    It was [in the apartment] that [Ben found them].
    comes from
    [Ben found them] [in the apartment].
    Cleavage breaks the sentence up into two phrases, bracketed above, and emphasizes one of them by using it as the predicate of a clause with it as subject and is or was as an auxiliary, followed by a relative clause containing the other (de-emphasized) phrase. The it, the be form, and the that complementizer are all inserted by the rule.

The English Extraposition transformation simplifies structure; heavy clauses are easier to understand when they come at the end instead of the beginning of sentences, because English is right-branching.

But all English cleft transformations (there are several other kinds besides It-clefts and Wh-clefts) create structure, and thereby make parsing harder. One way to emphasize something is to make it harder to understand -- if people work to understand it, they'll remember it, goes this theory. Speaking as a teacher, I'm not so sure it's correct.

6
  • 2
    I think the term 'that clause' is potentially misleading since it may be confused with a that complement clause when in fact it's a relative clause, possibly a wh one.
    – BillJ
    Nov 1, 2022 at 16:51
  • 1
    I agree with your teacher instincts. Graphic designers like to say, in defense of their hard-to-read font choices, "If it's hard to read, people will read it harder." This is to understand nothing about human nature.
    – Robusto
    Nov 2, 2022 at 0:33
  • I have a question. So following the structure: It BE X that Y, when it's extraposition, can I understand that the sentence still makes sense though the X element is deleted? (which acts as an adjunct instead of a complement....?)
    – Arlo
    Nov 2, 2022 at 2:13
  • @BillJ Thanks, I've corrected it. Arlo, That isn't the structure of extraposition. What is X? And I can't tell you what you can understand because I don't know what you already think you understand. Nov 2, 2022 at 14:45
  • Sorry I didn't make myself clear. For the sentence "it was obvious that the cake was done", I am assuming that the X element is 'obvious', and the Y element is ‘the cake was done".
    – Arlo
    Nov 3, 2022 at 3:49
2

It cleft:

The simple form of the sentence is

Ben found something interesting in the apartment -- a mouse eating cheese.

In order to create an “it cleft”, some movement of the elements is required and “it was/is, etc.”, is placed at the start:

It was in the apartment [that] Ben found something interesting -- a mouse eating cheese.

The website for eCampus Ontario is helpful.

Extra position

Extra position takes place when a relative clause, content clause, adjunct, etc. is moved from its normal position in the sentence, i.e. next to the word it qualifies. Sometimes this is not idiomatic, sometimes it is necessary:

From Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extraposition#Examples

a. Someone whom we don't know left a message.

b. Someone left a message whom we don't know. - Extraposition of relative clause out of subject

a. Susan said something that nobody expected more than once.

b. Susan said something more than once that nobody expected. - Extraposition of relative clause out of object

a. Some guy with red hair was there.

b. Some guy was there with red hair. - Extraposition of prepositional phrase out of subject

a. How frustrated with their kids are they?

b. How frustrated are they with their kids? - Extraposition of prepositional phrase from predicative adjective phrase

a. %What that was so entertaining actually happened?

b. What actually happened that was so entertaining? - Extraposition of content clause from subject wh-element

a. %What that upset everyone do you think they did?

b. What do you think they did that upset everyone? - Extraposition of content clause from object wh-element

1
  • 1
    What you've illustrated are not themselves extrapositions, but examples of ENP (Extraposition from Noun Phrase movement). Extraposition constructions have a dummy it as Subject, just like it-clefts. Nov 1, 2022 at 15:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.