How To Teach Cleft Sentences

In contrast to my last post on reported speech, Cleft Sentences are one of my favourites! It’s beautiful language that serves to emphasize and give particular attention to something important or something out of the ordinary.


There are three ways to form a cleft sentences.

  • A clause beginning with ‘what’ linked to the rest of the sentence by the verb ‘to be’. The verb in the ‘what’ clause is usually ‘do’. If this is the case, the verb ‘to be’ is followed by the infinitive, the ‘to’ is optional. Shown here in example 2.
  1. “I really like ice cream” – “What I really like is ice cream”
  2. .”He complained to the board of directors” – “What he did was complain to the board of directors”
  • A clause beginning with ‘All’

“You’re the only thing I want for Christmas” – “All I want for Christmas is you”

  • A clause beginning with It is / Was linked by ‘that’ / ‘who’

“Mike left the cake on the table” – “It was Mike who left the cake on the table”

Advanced Level

These details are a more in depth look at Cleft Sentences that are only really necessary for levels C1 and higher. Any lower and the students might get confused, I do too sometimes! All of the basic grammar shown above remains the same, there are a couple of additions noted here only.

What Clefts

What Clause + To Be + Emphasized Part

These can be a noun phrase;

“What I really want is ice cream”

A Gerund;

“What she likes is eating ice cream”

Or a Noun Clause;

“What I want to know is where to get ice cream”

Usually, we use ‘what’ as the object of the clause, but sometimes it’s used as the subject;

“What she is doing really upsets me”

We can use ‘what’ clefts to focus attention on verb phrases. To do this we use a form of the verb ‘do’ in the ‘what’ clause and the basic verb in the emphasized verb phrase.

“What she does is eat ice cream all day” – Eating ice cream all day is what she does”

Sometimes an infinitive is the emphasized verb phrase after ‘to do’. Although the ‘to’ can be omitted.

“Now what she is planning to do is to eat ice cream for a living”

It Clefts

These clefts are usually for a noun or a pronoun;

“It was me that ate all the ice cream”

But also for prepositional phrases;

“It was the car for which I was looking”

And for Adverbial Clauses;

“It was today that I found the car”

So yes, Cleft Sentences can be a real humdinger to teach, lots of students asking lots of questions. But with reference to exams, this structure is particularly useful when writing essays and reports, and also for their speaking. Get them to play around with them a little and it will be well worth their time!

Any more doubts about Cleft Sentences? No worries! Let me know in the comment section and I’ll get back to you!





7 thoughts on “How To Teach Cleft Sentences

  1. You really make it seem so easy together with your presentation however I find this topic to be really something that I think I would by no means understand. It kind of feels too complicated and very large for me. I’m looking forward for your subsequent publish, I’ll attempt to get the hold of it!


  2. You really make it seem really easy along with your presentation but I to find this topic to be really something which I feel I might never understand. It sort of feels too complicated and extremely wide for me. I am taking a look forward in your next post, I will attempt to get the cling of it!


  3. I can’t find anything in grammar books or online about the verb agreement in these types of sentences(singular or plural) What is the rule? Consider these examples I found in a grammar book(these are listed as the correct answers in the answer key) Is the ” what” part considered singular?
    Ex.1 What the town needs is more green spaces. (If this is correct, then why are Ex. 2, 3 plural?)
    Ex. 2 What he was referring to were the appalling slums that a booming city had spawned.
    Ex. 3 what they didn’t agree with were the plans for the development of the old factory.
    I do realize that in Ex. 1, there is a noun clause in the subject position. But in Ex. 2 and 3, are they cleft or pseudocleft or inversions?


    1. Oooh good question! 🙂

      We have to first consider these in their normal, unemphasised state.

      1. The town NEEDS more green spaces.
      2. He WAS referring to the appalling slums that a booming city had spawned.

      If you look, you can see that both of your first examples have singular verbs, so we use a singular verb when we change the sentence to a cleft. Like so;

      1. What the town needs IS more green spaces.
      2. What he was referring to WAS the appalling slums that a booming city had spawned.

      The third example:

      3. They didn’t agree with the plans for the development of the old factory.

      This one contains a plural verb, ‘didn’t agree’. Therefore the cleft will use a plural verb.

      3. What they didn’t agree with were the plans for the old factory.

      I can’t really tell you why your grammar books told you that the second one was correct like that, because to my mind, it’s not. What I can say, is that some books have a tendency to put phrases that, while not grammatically perfect, are widely accepted and understood. It is true that we could say all of these sentences with either the singular or plural and still be understood. I’m also not sure which grammar publication you’re using. But if I may suggest something like ‘The Practice of English Grammar’ by Michael Swan.

      Hope this helps!
      EFL TIPS


  4. Thanks for this. First time teaching cleft sentences and neither the course materials nor my other grammar books were providing such a clear explanation as yours. Lifesaver!


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