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A constructional approach to clefts

Kristin Davidse

University of Leuven
Department of Linguistics
Blijde-Inkomststraat 21
B-3000 Leuven
tel: +32 16 32 48 11
fax: +32 16 32 47 67


In this article I will argue that clefts differ in more than simply their information structure from

their non-cleft counterparts. Clefts are constructions in their own right, whose grammatical

features convey specific representational semantics. I will focus on the two main coded

relations in cleft constructions: the one expressed by the matrix clause and the anaphoric

relation between the Complement of the matrix clause and the relative clause. I will indicate in

which ways these have not been described satisfactorily in the literature so far, and propose an

alternative description. The different matrix clauses of clefts are specific subtypes of

identifying, existential and possessive clauses, which all impose a specific ‘quantificational’

value on their Complement: they express exhaustive specification of a set, enumeration, or

cardinal quantification of instances. The relative clause takes this specifying, enumerating or

cardinally measured Complement as antecedent and incorporates it in a Value-Variable relation.

In this way, I will argue, the different types of clefts, viz. it-clefts, there-clefts and possessive

clefts, can be given an integrated semantic description.


In this article I will revisit the grammar and semantics of the sentence types traditionally

referred to as clefts. I will be concerned with it-clefts, the neglected category of there-clefts,

and, marginally, with have-clefts.

(1) It’s John who’s causing us trouble.

(2) There’s John who’s causing us trouble.

(3) We have John who’s causing us trouble.

In section 1 I will criticize the traditional approach to ‘clefts’, which has tended to assume that

they do not have any representational semantics independent of their non-cleft counterparts.

Focusing on Huddleston’s (1984) articulation of this position,1 I will point out in section 1 what

seem to me the two main descriptive cop-outs in this approach, viz. the failure to give a

positive characterization to the relative clause in clefts, and the claim that the matrix clauses of

clefts cannot be described as identifying, existential - or possessive - clauses. Because these

two main ‘component’ structures have not been dealt with satisfactorily, the ‘composite’

structure formed by the cleft has not been described adequately either.

The general approach advocated to clefts here is ‘constructional’ in the long functional

tradition represented by, amongst others, Haas (1954: 74), Halliday (1985: 32), Langacker

(1987: 316; 1991: 5) and McGregor (1997: 39). According to Halliday’s (1985: 32) succinct

characterization, a construction is a “configuration of functions”. This functional approach is

‘top-down’ in the sense that the functions are defined by the higher-level unit in which they play

a role, viz. the construction. It is also ‘semiotic’ in the sense that both the composite structure

and its component structures are viewed as symbolic form-meaning couplings, with the form

‘coding’ the meaning.2

An exhaustive description of all the constructional features of clefts is far beyond the

scope of one article. Therefore, I will focus on the two main coded relations in clefts, which, as

indicated above, have not been described with sufficient precision so far.

In section 2, I will focus on the relative clause and its antecedent in clefts and point out

fundamental differences with both restrictive relative clauses and non-restrictive relative

clauses. This will also lead to a revision of certain traditional descriptions of restrictive relative


In section 3, I will home in on the matrix clauses found in clefts and argue that they are

specific subtypes of identifying, existential and possessive constructions, which all impose a

specific ‘quantificational’ value on their Complements. In particular, the distinction between

‘cardinal’ and ‘enumerative’ existentials as set out in Davidse (1999) will be used to further

distinguish two types of there-cleft.

In section 4, I will integrate these findings into a description of the main constructional

features of clefts, which will also lead to an integrated description of the semantic differences

between the various types of cleft.

1. Traditional approaches to clefts

1.1. Recognition criteria of clefts

As pointed out by Huddleston (1984: 461), the most distinctive grammatical feature of the it-

cleft is the fact that the postverbal NP and the relative clause following it do not form one

grammatical unit. In this respect the it-cleft can be contrasted with an ‘ordinary’ identifying

clause whose Complement contains a restrictive relative clause (henceforth RRC). Consider,

(4) Who was that on the phone? -- It was the boy who/that caused all the trouble.

(5) Who caused all the trouble? -- It was the boy (who/that) caused all the trouble.

Identifying clause (4) specifies that the person on the phone is the boy who caused all the

trouble: in this clause the Complement is formed by the whole NP with its RRC postmodifier.

The it-cleft (5) specifies that the person causing all the trouble was the boy. In (5) it is only the

boy that functions as postverbal Complement. The wh-/th-clause is not part of this

Complement-NP. This is clearly shown if we replace the boy by a proper name (Huddleston

1984: 460) as in

(6) It was Tom who caused all the trouble.

As is well-known, a determinerless proper name cannot function as the head of a RRC

postmodifier (Langacker 1991: 59).

The distinction between it-clefts, on the one hand, and identifying clauses with

Complements postmodified by a RRC, on the other, is also signalled by the distinct intonation

patterns that tend to be associated with them. Halliday (1967a: 237) has pointed out that it-

clefts are typically spoken on a compound fall-rise tone. This allows the speaker to place the

marked or contrastive information focus on the postverbal NP, while also having a tonal

nucleus on the final lexical item of the tone unit (Quirk et al 1972: 1046).

(5)’ It was the boy who caused all the trouble.

In contrast, the identifying clause with Complement postmodified by a RRC (4) would

normally be uttered with only one, tone-final, salient element.

(4)’ It was the boy who caused all the trouble.

As noted by Halliday (1985: 205), RRCs can be recognized intonationally by the fact that they

do not constitute a separate tone unit.

Now, the same sorts of contrasts as exist between identifying clauses with RRC and it-

clefts can be observed between existential clauses with RRC like example (7) on the one hand

and constructions such as those illustrated by example (8) on the other. Consider:

(7) What can you see on the table? -- Well, there’s one thing that has a funny shape.

(8) Could it be anything else? -- No, there’s only one thing that’s that shape.

The existential in (7) basically informs the hearer that there is ‘one’ instance of a ‘funny-shaped

thing’ on the table. That has a funny shape is a RRC which modifies the head thing.3 (Note that

it is intonationally integrated into the matrix clause, which is uttered with one simple tone


In contrast, the there-sentence in (8) asserts that ‘only one thing’ exists which

corresponds to the specific shape speaker and hearer have in mind. The Complement of the

existential predicator is just the NP one thing here. The th-clause that is that shape is not a

Postmodifier of thing. This is signalled formally by the intonation associated with (8): the

relative clause is not - as it is in (7) - integrated into the tone contour with which the sentence is

spoken. Rather, example (8) takes the compound ‘fall-rise’ tone, which was also characteristic

of the it-cleft in (5).

(7)’ There’s one thing that has a funny shape.

(8)’ There’s only one thing that’s that shape.

Moreover, the postverbal NP in (8) can be replaced by a proper name (as in 9), which also

shows that the th-clause following it cannot be its postmodifier.

(9) There’s only Humpty Dumpty that’s that shape.

Clearly, sentences like (8) instantiate another construction than an ordinary existential with

RRC. Because of the many similarities with it-clefts, I will, following Halliday and

Huddleston, refer to examples like (8) as there-clefts. The descriptive justification of this

categorization will be given later in this article. Meanwhile, it can be noted that the category of

there-clefts does not have common currency in the mainstream. To my knowledge, relatively

few authors (Halliday 1967a, Huddleston 1984, Hannay 1985, Collins 1992, Davidse 1999b)

have argued that there-clefts should be recognized.

However, recognition of there-clefts as a category parallel to it-clefts puts some of the

constructional features which they share into sharper relief, and also reveals that these features

have not yet received an adequate explanation. The formal status and semantic value of the

th-/wh- clause in it- and there-clefts is a case in point. This question has traditionally been

skirted by describing sentences like (5) - (8) as ‘cleft’ transforms of ‘non-cleft’ originals. In the

next section, I will indicate a number of problems with such an approach.

1.2. The traditional ‘transformational’ approach to clefts

Huddleston (1984) is an interesting example of the traditional approach to clefts, which, though

not transformational in the strict sense, holds that ‘cleft’ constructions can only be described

“indirectly, in terms of the non-cleft counterpart in conjunction with the cleaving operation”

(462). For examples (5) and (8), the non-cleft counterparts are:

(5)’ The boy caused all the trouble.

(8)’ Only one thing is that shape.

These single clauses, so the traditional explanation runs, are divided into two distinct parts

assigned to different clauses, viz. a matrix clause, it was the boy, there ‘s only one thing, and a

‘secondary’ clause, (who/that) caused all the trouble; (that) ‘s that shape.

As to the matrix clauses of it- and there-clefts, Huddleston (1984: 462, 470) holds that

both it + be and there + be are “fully grammaticalized features of the construction whose

contribution to the meaning is not directly predictable from their use in other kinds of clause”.

The main semantic function he ascribes to clefts is a textual one4. It-clefts ‘highlight’ an

element, viz. the postverbal NP, and associate, due to the use of definite it, a component of

uniqueness with this element (Huddleston 1984: 466-467) e.g. in (5) it is Tom, and no one else,

who caused the trouble. Informationally, the postverbal NP often provides ‘new’ information,

with the relative clause containing the ‘given’ information (as in (5) and (6)). However, as

pointed out by Huddleston (1984: 465), the information in the relative clause can also be new,

in which case the highlighted element is often anaphoric or otherwise given, as in the following

example about The Burghers of Calais:

(10) Far from humbling himself before the king of England, the burgher was leaving the city

to descend toward the camp. It is this that gives the group the feeling of march, of


(from: R. Butler (1993) Rodin. The Shape of Genius. New Haven & London:

Yale University Press: 204)

Huddleston (1984: 469) does not attribute a ‘highlighting’ function to there-clefts, but holds

that they recast the non-cleft clause into a “thematic variant”, which presents the description of

the actual event in postverbal position (One man kept interrupting – There was one man kept

interrupting). In other words, despite the many structural similarities between it- and there-

clefts, he does not recognize analogies between their semantic values. I will argue that this is

unsatisfactory and propose an alternative analysis that does bring out certain semantic parallels

based on formal similarities.

Turning to the th/wh-clause, then, Huddleston views it as displaying some, but not all,

of the characteristics of a defining relative clause. Firstly, antecedents of relative clauses in it-

clefts, have a wider range than those of ordinary RRCs: they can not only be NPs with common

noun heads, but also pronouns and proper names (Declerck 1988: 52) as well as prepositional

phrases and embedded clauses (Quirk et al 1972: 953).

(11) It was Tom/you who/that caused all the trouble.

(12) It was in September that/zero I first noticed it.

(13) It was because he was ill that/zero we decided to return. (Quirk et al 1972: 953)

Note that the Complements in there-clefts can be pronouns or proper names too.

(14) There’s only Humpty Dumpty/him that’s that shape.

Prepositional phrases and, marginally, clauses also seem possible as Complements of there-


(15) There’s on the table that you may have left it.

(16) There’s when you were away that it might have happened.

Further, both in it and there-clefts, that and zero are more common than wh-forms. With some

types of antecedents, wh-forms are even ungrammatical (Quirk et al 1972: 953; Huddleston

1984: 393-396; 460-461), e.g.

(17) It is in November that/*when you should prune the roses.

(18) It’s only by train that/*how you will get in.

(19) There’s on the platform that/*where you can wait.

Moreover, zero-realization of the Subject in the relative clause, which is restricted to informal

registers in ordinary RRCs, occurs unproblematically in it- and there-clefts (Quirk et al 1972:

959) Huddleston (1984: 460), as in (5)’ and (8)’.

(5)’ It was the boy caused all the trouble.

(8)’ There’s only one thing is that shape.

Huddleston (1984: 462) concludes that the relative clause in it-clefts is of a kind that is “sui

generis, unique to this construction”.


We thus see how this approach to clefts posits that they cannot be described as

constructions in their own right, but only ‘indirectly’ as transforms of their non-cleft

counterparts. The matrix clause, it is claimed, should not be described as an identifying or

existential clause, despite its apparent similarities to these clause types. In fact, in the

Huddleston approach, the matrix clause is denied any representational import. Similarly, no

attempt is made to describe the special properties of the relative clause in clefts beyond the

observation of fairly superficial differences with RRCs.

Opposed to this, I will argue that the two main component structures of clefts – matrix

and relative clause – can be given positive functional characterizations, which, together, lead to

a more precise insight into the semantics of cleft constructions.

2. The relative clause in cleft constructions

The first main point to be tackled in a constructional approach to clefts is the special status of

its relative clauses. The traditional observations about the relative clause in clefts stop short of

the real issues, particularly the extent and the structural status of the antecedent. In this

respect, I will show that Huddleston’s analysis of the relative clause in clefts

1) does not go far enough in developing the differences with restrictive relative clauses;

2) does not account for the differences from non-restrictive relative clauses;

3) does not recognize that this sort of relative clause is found in other constructions besides it-


2.1. Differences between relative clauses in clefts and restrictive relative clauses

As we saw above, Huddleston makes the observation that relative clauses in it-clefts allow for

a wider range of antecedents than RRCs, viz. proper names, pronouns, adverbials and clauses.

In this section I will argue that there are more fundamental differences between RRCs and

relative clauses in clefts. In fact, focusing on the contrast between RRCs and clefts will bring

out a problem in the received approach to RRCs.

The traditional approach to RRCs tends to hedge on the question whether it is the

whole NP or only the nominal head that functions as antecedent5. If mostly the assumption is

withheld that RRCs have the whole NP as antecedent (e.g. Huddleston 1984: 394) this may be

because the semantic function of the RRC is traditionally explained as giving information

necessary to identify the referent of that antecedent. And ‘picking out a referent’ presupposes a

full NP with determiner. For instance, in (20) who stood in the corner is said to provide the

necessary information to identify the girl in question.

(20) The girl who stood in the corner is Mary Smith. (Quirk et al 1972: 858)

Non-restrictive relative clauses (henceforth NRRCs) are then said to add merely information

which is not essential to identification, because the antecedent has already been uniquely

identified. For instance, in (21) the antecedent is the proper name Mary Smith, which is as such

uniquely identifiable.

(21) Mary Smith, who is in the corner, wants to meet you. (Quirk et al 1972: 858)

The traditional description is not very explicit either about the head-modifier relations in NPs

with RRCs and mostly leaves it at noting that, for instance in (20), the determiner the is

premodifier, girl head, and who stood in the doorway postmodifier, without specifying any

internal bracketing within that dependency structure.

A further problem with the traditional explanation of RRCs versus NRRCs is that it

applies only to definite NPs, but does not clarify what sort of distinction is involved when the

‘antecedent NP’ is indefinite, as in

(22) She was wearing a dress that I’d never seen before. (Huddleston 1984: 398)

(23) She was wearing an exclusive dress, which I’d never seen before.

According to the received analysis the antecedent in (22) is a dress. Since this nominal is

indefinite, the function of the RRC cannot be that of ‘aiding identification’. In example (23) the

antecedent (an exclusive dress) is also indefinite, so the NRRC cannot be said to add non-

essential information to an already identified antecedent.

Against this traditional description, Langacker (1991: 430f) explicitly says that the

antecedent of the RRC is the nominal head minus determiners. Moreover, he specifies that the

RRC modifies the nominal head only, and that this complex is grounded by the determiner. The

internal dependency structure of a NP with RRC is thus, according to Langacker,

<Figure 1 here>

Figure 1. Dependency analysis of RRC according to Langacker

Langacker’s analysis of RRCs is part of an alternative description of the NP which

correlates the various structural elements found in it with its four basic semantic functions, viz.

type specification, instantiation, quantification, and grounding. NPs with common noun heads

display the unmarked correlations between forms and basic functions. Since common nouns

designate classes or types, e.g. dog, the common noun head expresses the ‘general type’ of the

entity designated6 . Non-determining modifiers express a subcategorization of this general type,

e.g. golden dog, dog that is faithful. Head and non-determining modifiers thus constitute the

full ‘type specification’. To tie the type specification to specific instances, it has to be modified

by a determiner, e.g. a golden dog, the dog that is faithful. The grounding, or ‘identification’, of

the instances is realized by determiners such as articles, demonstratives, possessives, and

relative quantifiers, e.g. a dog (one instance, not presumed known), your dogs (more than one

instance, identified in terms of possession), either dog (one instance not presumed identifiable

from a reference set of two). NPs consisting of proper names or pronouns present the marked

option in that they do not have distinct structural elements to realize the four semantic

functions of the NP. For instance, Mrs Widmerpool implies a ‘type specification’ (e.g. ‘female’,

‘married’), and designates a single identified instance.

Within this overall descriptive framework, Langacker analyzes the RRC as an element

of the type specification: a RRC “restricts the head noun’s type specification” (Langacker

1991: 432). The internal assembly of the type specification precedes the grounding of the

instance by the determiner. Thus, in Langacker’s description, the antecedent of the RRC is the

nominal head designating the type (e.g. dress), not the full NP designating the instance (a/the


In what follows I will argue that Langacker’s analysis receives further support from an

in-depth analysis of determiners and quantifiers in relative constructions. Huddleston (1984:

394-5) himself has made a convincing case that the relative pronoun does not have an

anaphoric relation with the full NP, but only with the head minus determiners. This is

particularly clear when the determiner is a quantifier such as no, every, any, each, etc.


(24) No one who knows her would consider her a threat. (cf Huddleston 1984: 394)

Here, the relative pronoun clearly does not point to no one, for this would entail that ‘no one

knows her’ and that is not part of the intended meaning of (24). Likewise,

(25) Every vehicle which they had tested had some defect. (Huddleston 1984: 394)

does not entail that they had tested every vehicle. Huddleston (1984: 395) further points out

quite rightly that even in the seemingly straightforward cases with definite article, as in

(26) I didn’t like the guy who spoke first.


there is no pragmatic equivalence between who spoke first and the guy spoke first. In the latter

expression, the description guy is sufficient to pick out the intended referent, whereas in (26)

the whole description guy who spoke first is judged pragmatically necessary by the speaker for

picking out the person in question.

With these observations, Huddleston seems to come close to the sort of position

advocated by Langacker (1991), but rather than going the whole way, he ultimately reverts to

the traditional position in which the antecedent of the RRC is considered to be the full NP. He

then posits an alleged ‘lack of equivalence’ between relative anaphor and antecedent, which

goes against the logical assumption that the antecedent is the meaning anaphorically pointed


I subscribe to the internally coherent approach proposed by Langacker: the restrictive

relative pronoun is an anaphor which requires the disentangling of ‘type specification’ and

‘grounded, quantified instance’ as grammatical categories. Who in (26) has got the ‘type’ guy

as antecedent. Once one recognizes that it is the ‘type description’ which functions as

antecedent in this anaphoric relation, there is no need to posit a - counterintuitive - mismatch

between antecedent and anaphor.

Ultimately, Huddleston’s problems with the delineation of nominal antecedents may be

related to the traditional philosophical conception of ‘reference’, which considers only the

relation established between the full NP and the ‘instance’ referred to (be it conceptualized as

an instance in the real world or in the universe of discourse). In fact, the reference act is more

complex: the speaker can bring the hearer into mental contact with the instance (Langacker

1991: 91) only if the hearer can also successfully process the ‘type description’ which, should

be sufficiently informative in view of the information accumulated in the text up to that point.

‘Defining’ modifiers such as RRCs play an important role in the reference act precisely by

further specifying the type description.

It is clear enough that the determiners in (24)-(26) are not part of the antecedent, but to

arrive at a coherent picture of the role of determiners in NPs with RRC, we have to look into

this matter more systematically. More specifically, we have to investigate how the main types

of identifiers and quantifiers behave when the NP contains a RRC as postmodifier.

Interestingly, it is by systematically comparing RRCs with clefts that light can be shed on this


Let us begin with identifiers, which, as is well-known, indicate whether the instances

designated by the NP are ‘presumed known to the hearer’ (definite reference) or ‘not presumed

known to the hearer’ (indefinite reference).

Let us first (re-)consider examples with definite identifier and attempt to bring a

number of earlier observations together into a more coherent whole.

(27) At that meeting last night,

(a) I didn’t like the man who spoke first.

(b) *I didn’t like John who spoke first.

(28) When God asked why they were wearing clothes,

(a) It was the man who spoke first.

(b) It was Adam who spoke first.

In the it-cleft, the Complement slot can take NPs with definite determiner as well as proper

nouns. By contrast definite NP the man in (27) cannot be replaced by a proper name: *I didn’t

like John who spoke first. This distributional fact is well-known but little reflection has been

devoted to why this is so. Following the lead of Langacker’s analysis, I propose that a proper

name cannot function as antecedent of a RRC because it does not symbolize the ‘type

description’ as a separate element that the relative pronoun can refer back to. This line of

reasoning is confirmed by the fact that a RRC is possible after determiner + proper noun in the

special use illustrated by

(29) I‘ve just met the John you used to go out with.

which could be used in a context containing at least two people with the name John. As pointed

out by Langacker (1991: 59), John is used as a common noun in such examples: its lexical

predication is not an individual but the category delineation ‘person with name John’, and it

requires a determiner to be tied to a specific instance. The RRC in (29) thus has the general

type ‘person with name John’ as its antecedent. In contrast, in clefts NPs with definite

determiner + common noun head do alternate with proper names (example 28). Clearly, the

relative pronoun is not anaphoric with the ‘type’ here but with the ‘grounded instance’

designated by the full NP (the man, Adam).

How does the RRC function then in the referential act performed with a definite NP

containing a RRC? As pointed out above, the more elaborate ‘type specification’ construed by

nominal head + RRC, such as man who spoke first in (27), is judged necessary by the speaker

in that specific context to allow the hearer to pick out the instance in question. But in order to

understand the contribution made by the RRC fully, we have to look more deeply into the

mechanisms involved in definite identification. I (1999) have proposed that, with definitely

identified NPs, the type description defines a reference mass8 of ‘all the instances

corresponding to that type in the discourse context’. For instance, in both examples (30)-(31),

the contextually relevant reference mass is ‘all exams that still need correcting’. The definite

article in (30) refers to all of those, while the possessive determiner in (31) refers to only some

instances of that reference mass.

(30) Here are the exams that still need correcting.

(31) If you take care of your exams that still need correcting, I’ll take care of mine.

NPs with definite article and singular count noun can be used without ambiguity if there is just

one ‘contextually relevant instance’ corresponding to that type, which also happens to be the

one actually referred to, as is the case in (28). The context of the Garden of Eden evoked by

this example contains only one instance of the type ‘man’. Of course, many other contexts will

contain more than one instance of the type ‘man’. By adding a RRC to the general type, the

‘reference mass’ may be narrowed down so that only one instance in the discourse context

corresponds to it. For instance, in (27), there were presumably several ‘men’ at the meeting, but

by using the description man who spoke first, the set of potentially relevant instances is

restricted to just one. Hence, the definite NP the man who spoke first can be used

unambiguously to refer to the person in question. (This is the use which is so often cited as the

paradigm case of RRC in textbooks.)

Let us now turn to RRCs with indefinite determiner, which contrast with relative

clauses in there-clefts.

(32) A tie is always an appropriate present for a man who is rather conservative.

(33) There is not a white man dances as well as black men.

In (32), the RRC contributes to the ‘type specification’: speaker and hearer are thinking of an

instance of the category ‘man who is rather conservative’. By contrast, it is clear that the there-

cleft in (33) is not correctly paraphrased as ‘There’s not an instance of the category ‘white man

dances as well as black men’. The point of this there-cleft is that there is not a white man of

whom it can be predicated that he ‘dances as well as black men’. The zero relative pronoun

clearly points back to the full NP not a white man so that the predication made in the relative

clause is also - indirectly - made of this antecedent.

As for the RRC in (32), Langacker’s point holds again that the RRC is first assembled

with the nominal head and only then is this elaborate type specification integrated with the

indefinite article, which presents the instance as ‘not identifiable’. ‘Not identifiable’ can mean

basically two things. The instance may be known to the speaker, but may be ‘being introduced’

into the discourse for the hearer’s benefit. In this case, the type of identification is ‘indefinite’,

but ‘specific’. It is also possible that no specific ‘instance’ corresponds to the indefinite NP for

either speaker or hearer, in which case we have ‘non-specific’ indefinite reference as in (32). In

either case, the ‘type specification’ which contains the RRC has a purely classificational

function: it does not define a reference mass. An indefinite NP merely designates ‘some’

instantiation of a type, without indicating whether there are - or aren’t - other instances of the

type in the discourse context.

The next issue to be looked at is the role of quantifiers in RRCs and clefts. Following

Milsark (1974/1977) and Langacker (1991: Ch.2), I (1999) hold that the two main types of

quantifying elements found in the NP are cardinal and relative quantifiers. Cardinal, or

‘absolute’ (Langacker 1991: 82f), quantifiers express the intrinsic magnitude of the designated

mass without giving any information about how this amount “stacks up in relation to”

(Langacker 1991: 82) all the instances of that type in the context. For instance, if you are

fighting a mice plague in your shed and you report that

(34) Three mice were found dead in the shed.

you give information about how many mice are dead, but not about how many mice are still

alive in the shed. In contrast, a relatively quantified NP compares the actually designated mass

with the reference mass of all contextually relevant instances and indicates whether the former

coincides with, or is a part of, the latter. For instance,

(35) Most mice in the shed are still alive.

conveys that ‘most’ mice of the total mice population in the shed are still alive.

How do cardinal quantifiers behave in RRCs and clefts?

(36) For one man who’s just, I’ll save the city.

(37) There’s only one thing that is that shape.

We can note again that the cleft indirectly predicates ‘is that shape’ of only one thing: the

antecedent of that is the full Complement NP only one thing. On the other hand, the RRC has

only the noun man as antecedent and thus constructs the more elaborate type man who’s just.

Cardinal quantifiers such as one ‘man who’s just’, or five/some ‘men who are just’ indicate the

intrinsic size of the instantiation. Hence, the type specification containing the RRC does not

contribute to the definition of a reference mass but has a purely ‘categorizing’ function.

Finally, how do relative quantifiers in clefts behave in comparison with those

associated with RRCs?

(38) All students who attended will receive a bonus point.

(39) It was all the passengers who had committed the murder.

In (38) the relative pronoun does not point back to all students; this clause does not state that

‘all students attended’. Rather, it conveys that all instances of the category ‘students who

attended’ will receive a bonus point. Note that with a relatively quantified NP such as all

students who attended, the type specification evokes a reference mass of all contextually

relevant instances, over which all quantifies universally. By contrast, the relative clause in (39)

is linked to all the passengers by the relative pronoun who: hence had committed the murder is

indirectly predicated of all the passengers. In other words, the antecedent of the RRC excludes

relative quantifiers, whereas that of the relative clause in clefts, which is the full NP, obviously

includes them.

In conclusion, against the traditional assumption that the antecedent of RRCs is a full

NP, we have seen that the antecedent of RRCs systematically excludes identifiers and

quantifiers. In contrast, the relative clauses in clefts have the full Complement NP as

antecedent. We can also note that it is precisely the inclusion of identification and quantification

in the antecedent of clefts that sanctions the well-known systematic alternation with non-cleft

counterparts, as with (40) for (39):

(40) All the passengers had committed the murder.


In the cleft (39), the relative clause predicates information about a specific situation indirectly

- via the intermediary of the anaphoric relative relation - of the antecedent NP. In the

corresponding non-cleft (40), the same clause is integrated directly with that NP. Note however

that the semantics of the cleft differ from those of the non-cleft because the matrix clause

frames the anaphoric relation between antecedent and relative clause in a specific way (see

sections 3 and 4).

2.2. Differences between relative clauses in clefts and non-restrictive relative clauses

In terms of their antecedent, non-restrictive relative clauses differ, in turn, from the relative

clauses in clefts. The antecedent of a NRRC can be a noun phrase (41), an adjective (42), an

adverb or prepositional phrase (43), a part of the matrix clause (44), or the whole matrix

clause (45), e.g.

(41) We’ll ask Barry, who is a specialist on those matters.

(42) They’re going to paint their house purple, which I would never paint my house.

(43) They talked about it yesterday/on Monday, when they vetted all the applications.

(44) The members of the board changed the order, which we have never done.

(45) They always looked down on him, which they should not have.

Purely in terms of a grammatical class analysis, the range of antecedents found in

relative clauses in clefts might appear not to be very different from that in NRRCs. In it-clefts,

for instance, we also find, besides NPs (46), adjectives (47), adverbs and prepositional phrases

(48), and parts of (49) as well as full clauses (50).

(46) It’s John who caused the trouble.

(47) It’s blonde that she is.

(48) It’s then/last summer that they met.


(49) It’s holding hands that they were doing.

(50) It’s while you were away that it might have happened.

However, there is a fundamental structural difference between the antecedents of

NRRCs and those of relative clauses in clefts, as far as the ‘non-NP’ fillers are concerned, i.e.

adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases and clausal antecedents. The latter are rankshifted

into the nominal Complement-slot of clefts, whereas the antecedents of NRRCs display the

structural assembly congruent with their rank. The concept of ‘rankshift’ has evolved within the

Hallidayan tradition (Halliday 1965, Huddleston 1984, Matthiessen & Thompson 1989,

Hopper & Closs-Traugot 1993, McGregor 1997). McGregor’s recent (1997: 127) definition

brings out best both the ‘external’ and the ‘internal’ consequences of rankshift: rankshifting

refers to the process whereby a unit of a given rank is “reclassified” as a unit of a different

rank, “as a result of which it takes on certain grammatical and semantic properties inherent to

that rank”. In other words, not only does the rankshifted unit function in a foreign structural

environment (such as a clause in a nominal slot), it is also internally reclassified.

Thus, when functioning at their own rank, adjectives and prepositional phrases express

‘relational’ concepts (Langacker 1991: Ch.1) such as ‘quality’ or ‘location’. Likewise, the

inherent designatum of a clause is a ‘situation’, more specifically, the predicate designates a

type of situation and the full clause a specific instance of a situation (Langacker 1991: 33). The

antecedents of NRRCs that are not NPs all have the semantic value congruent with their rank,

such as ‘attributable quality’ in (42), temporal location in (43), type of situation in (44) and

instance of situation in (45). However, the ‘non-NP’ units functioning as Complement in clefts

are rankshifted into the nominal Complement-slot, and are in this sense ‘nominalized’ (Halliday

1985: 219). They function in a strictly ‘nominal’ slot, such as that of the identifying

Complement in it-clefts9. That is, they fulfil the role of a NP-type element of structure, which

also requires them to discharge basic NP functions such as ‘identification’ and ‘quantification’.

They fulfil these functions in a way similar to how proper names realize identification and

quantification (cf Langacker 1991: 148), viz. without separate symbolization by determiners.

The rankshifted units are ‘cited’ in their entirety like a proper name, and they designate single

and uniquely identified entities, which may be individuals (e.g. then, they have always looked

down on him) or generic entities (e.g. blonde, holding hands).

I propose that it is precisely the ‘rankshifted’, nominalized, status of such antecedents

in clefts which explains their resistance to relative adverbs such as when, where, etc.

(51) It’s upstairs *where/that she keeps her records.

(52) It’s in September *when/that you should plant them.

(53) It’s before you get married *when/that you should travel.

If the Complement in clefts is realized by a rankshifted element such as adverb, prepositional

phrase or clause, then its semantic profile is that of a - reified - entity. Hence, these

‘rankshifted’ units are systematically referred to by relative pronoun that, and occasionally

which, whose general categorial features are those of ‘inanimate/abstract entity’. These

antecedents cannot be referred to by relative adverbs such as when, where and why, because

the rankshift has superimposed NP-features on them.

It should be noted that enumerative there-clefts can also take rankshifted prepositional

phrases and clauses. Enumerative there-clefts, which will be discussed in more detail in section

3, typically have definite NPs in Complement-position. Compare

(54) There’s Tom and Dick that/who caused trouble.

(55) There’s under the stove that still needs dusting.

(56) There’s when you were away that it might have happened.

The mechanism of rankshifting found here is fully parallel to that in it-clefts. Prepositional

phrases and clauses are rankshifted into the nominal Complement-slot and are re-classified as

definite NPs. Like proper names, they are ‘cited’ in their entirety and given definite

identification, but without separate coding of their definite status. As we shall see in the next

section, the more ‘enumerative’ feel associated with the Complement stems from the distinct

constructional semantics of the there-clause.

Note also that the enumerating Complement in there-clefts accepts fewer types of

rankshifted units than the identifying Complement in it-clefts. For instance, rankshifted

adjectives, and prepositional phrases expressing Receivers and Beneficiaries, are possible in it-

clefts but seem virtually excluded in there-clefts (p.c. K. Van den Eynde).

(57) It’s to John that you should give it.

(58) It’s for John that you should do it.

(59) It’s flighty that she is.

(60) ? There’s to John that you should give it.

(61) ? There’s for John that you should do it.

(62) *There’s flighty that she is.

Acceptability judgements will vary here and one can always try to make the enumerative

examples more acceptable, as in

(63) For whom am I doing all this? -- Well, there’s for your mother and father that you

could be doing it.

But there can be no doubt that it-clefts allow for a greater variety of rankshifted units than

there-clefts. Perhaps this is due to the fact that ‘ordinary’ identifying clauses readily accept

rankshifted units as one of the terms in the equation they express, as in

(64) The best way is by train.

(65) The moment to do it is when the plants have shed their leaves.

‘Ordinary’ enumerative existentials do not, of course, predicate any equation and do not

normally contain rankshifted units. They seem to need the ‘secondary’ relation expressed by the

antecedent and the relative clause in clefts to sanction the use of rankshifted units.

Let us, in conclusion to this section, summarize the main differences between NRRCs

and relative clauses in clefts. The antecedents of NRRCs may belong to various grammatical

classes such as NP, PrepP, PredP and clause. There is no necessary match between the class of

the antecedent and the function of the relative pronoun in the relative clause. Compare

(66) If I did fall off, which there is no chance of. :: *There is no chance of I did fall off.

(67) He had to do it by hand, which was time consuming. :: *Do it by hand was time


For instance, in (67) the antecedent is the predicate do it by hand, but the function of the

relative pronoun is Subject -- which cannot be realized by a bare infinitive (*Do it by hand was

time consuming).

In contrast, the antecedents of the relative clauses in clefts are either NPs or

reclassifications as NPs of other grammatical classes (adjectives, adverbs, prepositional

phrases, infinitives, gerunds, clauses). In the latter case, we have rankshifted units which

‘quote’ the form of the original class, but superimpose the functions of a definitely identified

NP on them. In clefts, there is a general match between the function of the relative anaphor and

the original, quoted, class of the antecedent. In that form, the antecedent can generally simply

replace the relative pronoun10. Compare

(68) It’s his falling off that there is no chance of. :: There is no chance of his falling off.

(69) It’s by hand that you should do it. :: You should do it by hand.

This is in fact the second factor, besides the inclusion of quantifiers and determiners in the

antecedent, which enables the systematic alternation between cleft and non-cleft counterpart.

The rankshifted antecedent of the RC in clefts still displays the class which matches up with the

function of the relative pronoun. Therefore, the relative clause can be re-integrated with its


Thus, careful comparison of the relative clauses in clefts with RRCs and NRRCs has

revealed the two most distinctive features of the antecedents of the former. Firstly, the

antecedent of the relative clause in clefts is the full NP, including the identifiers and quantifiers.

Secondly, the antecedent of the relative clause in clefts is always a NP, either as such or as the

result of a re-classification of non-nominal units. As we have seen, it is these two factors which

motivate the well-known systematic alternation between cleft and non-cleft. As a result, this

famous alternation loses something of its mystique. Definitely, it provides no justification for

regarding the cleft construction as a ‘transform’ unanalyzable in its own right. The special

characteristics of the antecedent in clefts can be given a positive description and provide part of

the explanation of the specific semantics of the cleft construction.

2.3. The sort of relative clause found in it-clefts is also found in other constructions

In this section, the point will be made (against Huddleston 1984: 462) that relative clauses of

the sort found in it- and there-clefts are not restricted to these environments. They are also

found in possessive clauses such as

(70) Who could be considered for this job? Well, we have/you’ve got Mick and Di that

could be considered.

With possessive clauses we find a contrast which is very similar to that between identifying

clause with RRC versus it-cleft, and between existential clause with RRC versus there-cleft.


(71) I have one daughter who plays the guitar and two daughters who play the piano.

(72) So, you’re all on your own then? -- No, I have a daughter/my daughter/Elizabeth

who/that helps me.

Example (71) is a clause expressing possession. Its Complement is formed by two coordinated

NPs with postmodifying RRC: one daughter who plays the guitar and two daughters who play

the piano. Who plays the guitar defines a subclass of ‘daughter’, which contrasts with the

subclass ‘daughters who play the piano’ (Huddleston 1984: 400). In contrast, (72) turns out, on

closer examination, to have the sort of relative clause whose antecedent is a full NP. Who/that

helps me makes a predication about definite instances (a daughter, my daughter, Elizabeth), not

about a type of which it delineates a finer subtype. Note that the antecedent of the relative

clause in (72) can be a definite NP (e.g. Elizabeth, my daughter) or an indefinite NP (e.g. a

daughter).With an indefinite Complement, this type of example can be ambiguous between a

‘cleft’ and an RRC-reading:

(73) RRC: (What are your daughters like?) I have a daughter that helps me and two that


(74) Cleft: (So, you’re all on your own then?) No, I have a daughter that helps me.

The functional parallels between this type of construction and there-clefts are obvious

and have also been pointed out by Hannay (1985: 92), who has drawn attention to the existence

of these ‘possessive’ clefts. In the next section, the parallels between possessive and existential

clefts will be described in more detail.

3. The matrix clauses in clefts

In the traditional approach to clefts, the ‘representational’ semantics of the matrix clauses have

generally been neglected or even denied. Thus, both there + be (Collins 1992: 432) and it + be

have been claimed to be “fully grammaticalized features of the construction whose contribution

to the meaning is not directly predictable from their use in other kinds of clauses” (Huddleston

1984: 462).

Against this position, I will make the case that the matrix clauses of it-, there- and

have/got-clefts do have the semantic import of identifying, existential and possessive clauses,

respectively. I will argue that, if one does not bring in the distinct semantics of the matrix

clauses, one cannot explain the distinct semantics of the corresponding clefts. Consider the

contrast between examples (75)-(76):

(75) It’s Jim who makes the coffee.

(76) There’s Jim who makes the coffee.

As pointed out by Halliday (1967a: 238), (75) specifies that it is only Jim who makes the

coffee, while (76) enumerates Jim as one, ‘possibly amongst others’, who makes the coffee.

The very existence of the there-cleft, besides the it-cleft, shows that the latter’s meaning of

‘exhaustive’ identification is not simply due to the definite Complement NP in (75). The

Complement-NP in (76) is similarly definite, but (76) does not express ‘exhaustive’

identification. I will argue below that the semantic contrast between (75)-(76) stems from the

distinct semantics of the whole matrix clause.

In this section, I will show that the matrix clauses of clefts are very specific subtypes

of identifying, existential and possessive clauses, which all have a common denominator, viz.

the fact that they impose a specific quantificational value on their Complement. In subsection

3.1, I will discuss the subtypes of identifying, existential and possessive clauses with specifying

or enumerating Complements that function as the matrices of clefts. In 3.2., I will look at the

rather distinct subtype of the ‘cardinal’ there-cleft, in which the obligatory cardinal

quantification of the Complement in the matrix clause plays a central role.

3.1. Matrix clauses with specifying and enumerating Complements


The identifying, existential and possessive matrix clauses found in clefts correspond exactly to

the clause types found in a context such as the following:

What’s for supper?

(77) It’s spaghetti.

(78) Well, there’s spaghetti.

(79) Well, you’ve got/we have spaghetti.

In what follows I will briefly characterize the constructional semantics of each, focusing on the

question what sort of quantitative effect is associated with the Complements of these


Example (77) is an identifying clause with Subject it. Identifying constructions have

been defined by Halliday (1967a: 224) as providing a definite value, the Identifier, for an

element to be identified, the Identified. The Identified can be likened to the unknown ‘x’ in a

mathematical equation and the Identifier to its actual value in that equation. In (77) the

Identified is the general pronoun it and the Identifier is spaghetti.

Example (78) is an enumerative existential (Lumsden 1988: 150f, Davidse 1999). This

construction type enumerates instances - in the limiting case just one instance - of a

contextually given type, such as ‘things that can be eaten for supper’. It is generally accepted

that (77) specifies exhaustively ‘what’s for supper’, while (78) merely lists - potentially non-

exhaustively - ‘things available for supper’.

Constructionally, this semantic contrast is triggered by the distinct Subjects of the two

clause types. Halliday & Hasan (1976: 101) have proposed that the general clitic pronouns it

and there stand in a systemic relation to each other: the first is definite and the second

indefinite. Following their lead, I (1999) have argued that definite it conveys quantificational

exhaustiveness, while there designates an - unspecific - amount of the numerical scale. This

proportionality is brought out nicely by the following alternation between clefts and pseudo-


(80) It’s Jules and Jim that got away with it.

(81) The ones that got away with it are Jules and Jim.

(82) There’s Jules and Jim that got away with it.

(83) Ones that got away with it are Jules and Jim.

It points to all the instantiation in the relevant discourse context of the category in question. In

this sense, its semantics involve comparison with a reference mass. It is the relative general

pronoun, which quantifies exhaustively over the whole reference mass. Note that in the

corresponding pseudo-cleft (81), the also encompasses all the instances in the discourse space

of the general type expressed by ones that got away with it. On the other hand, there in (82)

designates an unspecific amount of the numerical scale. In the indefinite pseudo-cleft (83), the

corresponding form of quantification is expressed by the zero-article, which conveys a cardinal

form of quantification: it designates - in an unspecific way - the intrinsic size of the predicated

mass ones that got away with it. There is no reference mass involved here. We can thus

characterize there as the cardinal general pronoun.

Example (77) is an identifying clause with exhaustively quantifying it as Subject.

Therefore, the Complement spaghetti is construed as a specificational element. ‘Specificational’

is used here (as in Declerck 1988) in the strict sense of specifying the exact value

corresponding to the unknown factor in the equation. Thus, spaghetti exhaustively specifies the

entities corresponding to the contextual type ‘things to be eaten for supper’. We can, therefore,

characterize spaghetti as a specificational Complement.

In contrast, the cardinally quantifying Subject there in (78) points to its Complement

spaghetti as an enumerating Complement. I (1999) have proposed that this ‘enumerating’

scheme is ultimately an ‘ordinal’ scheme. In an enumerative there-cleft such as

(84) First there was the Commonwealth and then also the European to go for.

the ordinal scheme of the enumeration is made explicit by the adverbs first and then also. As

argued in Davidse (1999), the ordinal scheme found in enumerative existentials is an extension

of the ‘cardinal’ meaning of ordinary existentials. The extension from cardinality to ordinality

is clearly illustrated in existentials which combine the cardinal and the enumerative aspect, as


(84)’ There were two important competitions: first, the Commonwealth Games and, then, the

European Championships.

The limiting case of enumeration is to enumerate just one instance. Thus, example (78) lists

only spaghetti as an instance corresponding to the contextual type ‘things to be eaten for


Lists are mostly felt to be ‘possibly incomplete’ as in (85), but Rando & Napoli (1978)

have rightly pointed out that, with falling intonation, lists can also be presented as ‘complete’

as in (86).

(85) I don’t have any friends. Oh, don’t be silly! There’s John and me and Susan and Peggy

(Rando & Napoli 1978: 308)

(86) What’s worth visisting here? There’s the park, a very nice restaurant, and the library.

That’s all as far as I’m concerned. (Rando & Napoli 1978: 300-301)

Ultimately, the difference between specificational identifying clauses and enumerative there-

clauses lies in the distinct quantificational mechanisms imposed on the Complement. Like its

Subject it, the specificational Complement involves relative quantification; it involves

comparison with a reference set or mass, with which the actually predicated mass coincides

completely. If in answer to the question Who murdered Caesar? I say: It was Brutus and the

senate, I specify the full set of ‘murderers of Julius Caesar’. In contrast, the enumerating

Complement is, like its Subject there, concerned only with a part of the numerical scale: it

merely pegs the enumerated instances to a numerical scale, as in: There was Brutus and the

senate. The default implication is that the list may not be exhaustive. It requires special

intonation to indicate that the list is complete.

Finally, possessive clauses such as (79) have also been characterized as ‘enumerative’

(Quirk at al 1972: 961). The possessive verbs convey general meanings such as ‘have at one’s

disposal’ or ‘have to consider’. There is no constructional feature in them triggering a

specificational meaning: the Complement is not a specificational one, but one with enumerative

features similar to those in enumerative there-clauses, which can list items. For instance,

(87) Who could apply for that job? Well, we have Charles and Harry.

Depending on the intonation (low rise versus fall respectively), these lists may be interpreted as

‘possibly incomplete’ or ‘complete’.

3.2. Matrix clauses with cardinally quantified Complements

In clefts such as There’s only one thing that’s that shape the matrix clause is an unmarked, not

an enumerative (see 3.1), existential. In the mainstream, the unmarked existential has always

been interpreted locatively: it is alleged to prediacte an explicit or implicit location to the entity

designated by the central NP. However, many decades ago Strawson (1959: 241) had already

suggested that existential be should not be interpreted in terms of predication, but as ‘be

instantiated’: the existential confirms or denies instantiation of the ‘non-particulars’ described

by the central NP. I have given extensive linguistic argumentation elsewhere11 for the same

interpretative claim, while, however, also incorporating Milsark’s cardinality restriction in it.

As pointed out by Milsark (1976: 116f), the focal NPs in unmarked existentials are subject to a

‘cardinality restriction’: the quantifying elements found in the unmarked existential all express

a form of cardinal quantification.


As we have seen, cardinal quantifiers, or absolute quantifiers as Langacker (1991:82f)

calls them, designate the intrinsic magnitude of the designated mass, either by pegging it to a

specific numerical scale, as in

(88) There were ten/nine/eight …little Indians.

or by using a more ‘schematic’ expression of cardinality, as in

(89) There were some little Indians.

In what way does the cardinal measure obligatorily expressed by the NP in these

existentials contribute to its semantics? I have argued that it applies to the ‘instantiation’ of the

type -- Strawson’s non-particulars -- designated by the NP’s ‘type specification’. An existential

such as There were ten little Indians cardinally measures the actual instantiation within that

clause’s spatio-temporal domain of the general category ‘little Indian’. Or to put it very simply,

it counts the instances of ‘little Indians’ to be found within the spatio-temporal coordinates set

out by that clause. In this context, we can also return to the existential example (7) discussed

at the beginning of this article and reproduced here as (90).

(90) There’s only one thing that has a funny shape on the table.

Sentence (90) specifies that in the spatio-temporal domain ‘present time, on the table’, only one

instance of the category ‘thing that has a funny shape’ can be found.

It is because of this central concern with the cardinal quantification of instances that I

refer to the unmarked existential as the “cardinal existential”.

4. A constructional approach to clefts


In this final section, the findings of sections 2 and 3 will be brought together and a general

description of the semantics of clefts will be offered. The position assumed here is that so-

called clefts can and should be analyzed as constructions in their own right. Their semantics are

the result of the two basic relations coded by the construction. Firstly, there is the relation

expressed by the matrix clause, which, as we have seen, can be either identifying, cardinal

existential, enumerative existential, or possessive. The distinct semantics of the various matrix

clauses are responsible for the differences in meaning between the various types of cleft, such

as that between the identifying and the enumerating cleft discussed above (examples 75-76).

Secondly, there is the anaphoric relation between Complement and relative clause, which is

common to all clefts. As we have seen, the transformation-type approach has tended to

confound these two component structures, but in sections 2 and 3, I have attempted to put their

precise grammatical outlines on the map more clearly.

What is striking about all the matrix clauses that occur in clefts is that they all

construe ‘quantificational’ information of some sort for their Complement. As we have seen, we

have a specificational Complement in identfying clauses, an enumerating Complement in

enumerative existentials and possessives and a cardinally quantified Complement in cardinal

existentials. I propose that it is these various quantificational meanings imposed on the

Complements that constitute the common denominator of the clause types that can function as

the matrix of clefts.

What is more, these constructional quantificational features also bear on the

Complement-NPs as antecedents. The antecedent in (80) is not just the coordinated NPs Jules

and Jim, but the specificational Complement, i.e. the element of structure on which the

identifying construction imposes exhaustive relative quantification. The meaning of the

antecedent is ‘Jules and Jim as exhaustively specified set’. Likewise, the antecedent in (82) is

not just the coordinated NPs Jules and Jim. (As pointed out under 3, we cannot account for the

difference in meaning between (80) and (82) if we bring only the grammatical class features of

the Complement NP, such as definite NP, into the picture.) The antecedent in (82) is the

enumerating Complement, which pegs instances to a numerical scale; its meaning is ‘Jules and

Jim, as instances on an ordinal scale’.

What, then, are the semantics of the antecedent - relative clause relation itself in clefts?

Unlike with RRCs, they do not constitute a Head - Modifier relation, in which the ‘general

type’ is narrowed down to a more specific ‘type specification’. Rather, as proposed by Declerck

(1984 1988) and Hannay (1985: 120), antecedent and relative clause in clefts construe a Value-

Variable relation. The instances, as framed by the various quantificational mechanisms of the

matrix clauses, constitute the specific Value. The situation designated by the relative clause

constitutes the more general Variable. Value and Variable are used in a general sense here,

which covers all the quantificational mechanisms found in the various cleft types12.

The constructional semantics of the various types of cleft can then be described as

follows. It-clefts have an identifying matrix, which equates universally quantifying it with the

Complement. This Complement is thus an exhaustively specifying one. As such, it functions as

antecedent of the relative clause. It specifies the total set of instances corresponding to the

Variable expressed by the relative clause. For instance, it-cleft (93)

(93) The facts are: it’s President Chirac who is going to carry the political can. (CB)

specifies that the only politician who is going to be blamed is President Chirac.

In enumerative there-clefts, the matrix is an enumerative existential with an

‘enumerative’ Complement. This Complement lists instances, according to an implied ordinal

scheme, as corresponding to the Variable expressed by the relative clause. Often, we find the

limiting case of enumeration, which is to list just one instance. Typically, the implication is that

this list is potentially incomplete, as in (94), but intonation and added expressions such as only

may also signal that the enumeration is complete, as in (95).


(94) I’ve really just got to fill them in on lexicographers’ needs just because we’ve been

doing a lot of it but if there’s other people that you think are doing kind of creative

corpus lexicography. – Well, there’s McCarthy who’s just building a new one. (CB)

(95) Put something up? -- There’s only the council can do that. (CB)

This sort of enumerative Complement is also found in the more marginal ‘cleft’ constructions

with enumerative possessive matrix:

(96) I have my daughter who helps me. (cf Huddleston 1984:399)

In (96), a general concept of possession is used to frame the list of Values corresponding to the

Variable in the relative clause.

The matrix clause of cardinal there-clefts is a cardinal existential. Hence, it is subject

to the cardinality restriction: its Complement has always got absolute quantification. Therefore,

it indicates the cardinal measure of the instance corresponding as Value to the Variable. As

discussed above, the Complement NP in clefts is typically focal. In cardinal there-clefts, the

information focus may be on the nominal head or on the cardinal quantifier of the Value. In the

former case, illustrated by one possible reading of (97), the most salient information in the cleft

is the type of thing or person (‘boy’) instantiating the Variable. In the latter case, for instance

(98), it is the cardinality (‘one’), with which the Variable is attested.

(97) There’s no boy in that school has more or better clothes than you. (CB)

(98) Look at the shape of it. There’s only one thing that’s that shape. (CB)

We should note here that possessive clefts with indefinite Complement also impose cardinal

quantification on the Value being related to the Variable, as in

(99) I have a woman comes in twice a week. (Hannay 1985: 91)


I submit that these semantic characterizations do justice to the two main coded

relations in clefts: the one expressed by the matrix clause and the one expressed by the

anaphoric relation between antecedent and relative clause. Earlier descriptions have tended to

reduce one to the other. For instance, in Halliday’s (1967a) and Bolinger’s (1972) analysis of

it-clefts, Subject it and the relative clause are said to form one discontinuous constituent, which

is analyzed as the Identified. In this way, the it-cleft is reduced to a simple identifying clause13.

The distinct semantics of the matrix clauses explain the semantic differences between

the various types of clefts. In particular, they show how the Complement is set up as antecedent

of the relative clause with different quantificational values. As we have seen, the distinct matrix

clauses may express exhaustive specification of a set, enumeration and cardinal quantification

of instances. What the relative clause does is add a Value-Variable dimension as part of the

construction. The nature of the anaphoric relation created by the relative pronoun is the same in

all types of cleft: it relates the antecedent as a Value to the Variable expressed by the relative

clause. Thus, it becomes clear that clefts do not simply express specification, enumeration or

cardinal measuring of the instantiation – they specify, enumerate or measure instances as

Values corresponding to a Variable.

As continually stressed throughout this article, these two relations expressed by matrix

clause and relative anaphora are part of the constructional semantics. They form the

grammatical substratum for the many ‘textual’, or ‘pragmatic’, patterns that have received so

much attention in more recent studies of clefts (Geluyckens 1988, Collins 1991 1992). As we

saw in 1.1, the relative clause in clefts may recap ‘given’ information and encapsulate this in a

‘contextually given’ Variable (as in example 5), or it may present ‘new’ information in the

Varibale (as in example 10). Either informational schema is compatible with the grammatico-

semantic description proposed here.


In this article, I have developed a grammatical analysis of clefts as constructions in their own

right, whose semantic properties can be correlated directly with their grammatical features.

In section 1, I have first recapitulated the incontrovertible formal recognition criteria of

clefts established in the literature, such as its intonation and the fact that its relative clause does

not modify the nominal head. I have then identified the two main aspects of clefts that had not

yet been dealt with satisfactorily, viz. the constructional value of the matrix clause and the

nature of the anaphoric relation established by the relative pronoun.

In section 2, I have investigated the special status of the antecedent of the relative

clause in clefts. Unlike restrictive relative clauses, its antecedents include identifiers and

quantifiers, and unlike non-restrictive relative clauses, its ‘non-NP’ antecedents are rankshifted

and re-classified as NPs.

In section 3, I have set out descriptions of the identifying, existential and possessive

types of matrix clause found in clefts, with special reference to my ‘quantificational’

interpretation of cardinal and enumerative existentials. I have pointed out that the Complements

of clefts, which already have ‘marked’ properties as antecedent of the relative clause, are

further foregrounded in clefts by the distinct quantificational values the matrix clauses impose

on them, viz. as specificational, enumerative and cardinally quantified, respectively.

In section 4, finally, I have shown that the two relations construed by clefts - by the

matrix clause and by relative anaphora - can be integrated with each other, without reducing

them to each other, as has happened in earlier descriptions. Put very simply, clefts specify,

enumerate or measure instances as Values corresponding to a Variable.

In view of all this, I have to add as a postscript that the term ‘cleft’ can be retained

only as a conventional, mnemonic label, and should certainly be cleared of any implications

that the construction is intrinsically ‘derived’ and cannot be described directly.

Data Source

All the examples marked with (CB) were extracted from the COBUILD corpus by remote log-
in. They are reproduced here with the kind permission of HarperCollins.


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I wish to thank Karel Van den Eynde for his careful reading of a previous draft of this article. I owe a special debt of

gratitude to him for his sharing of ideas, his sharp descriptive and methodological observations and his general

support. I also thank the anonymous referee of Linguistics for his generous comments.
This article takes Huddleston’s ‘transformational’ approach to clefts as a starting point because his is a very clear

articulation of this position. Moreover, it contains many interesting observations, as well as unresolved questions,

which, as acknowledged in several places in this article, have served as a springboard for the alternative approach

developed here.
It is precisely in its emphasis on the natural coding relation between form and meaning that this form of

constructionism differs from that propagated by Goldberg (1995).

For a more detailed discussion of the semantics of existentials, see section 3.2 and Davidse (1999).
This is often referred to, in the mainstream, as a ‘pragmatic’ motivation, viz. one enabling specific discourse uses.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that there are also existing descriptions which unambiguously identify the

nominal head as the antecedent of RRCs such as McGregor (1997: 199-201).

Note that Langacker’s (1991: Ch.1) concept of the ‘type specification’ includes the semantic contribution made by the

grammatical class of the head noun: a singular count noun such as bullet designates a ‘type of discrete entity’, a mass

noun such as buckshot designates a ‘type of homogeneous’ mass, while a plural count noun such as bullets designates

a ‘type of heterogeneous mass’.

Thus, in The Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, we find the antecedent defined as the “linguistic UNIT to

which another unit in the SENTENCE refers (ANAPHORIC REFERENCE), typically a later unit” (1991: 17).
The concept of the ‘reference mass’ has been developed by Langacker (1991: 82f), who introduces this concept as

part of his definition of relative quantifiers (see below). However, unlike Milsark (1977), Langacker does not extend

the notion of relative quantification to definite determiners such as the definite article, and possessive and

demonstrative determiners.
The constructional characteristics of the Complements in the various types of cleft will be discussed in the next

With verbal Complements, this integration has to pass via the intermediary of the verb do. This use of do is not the

‘operator’ use, which combines with the lexical verb, but the one that substitutes for the lexical verb (Halliday &

Hasan 1976: 112f):

operator do: He ran - He didn’t run - Did he run

substitute do: He may have run / He may have done

Verbal complements in clefts contain the predicate, not the finite, component of the VP, which is quoted in either the

infinitival or gerundival form. To integrate the antecedent with the relative clause, the substitute do has to be replaced

by the specific lexical verb:

It’s run/running that she did. :: She ran.

It’s running that she was doing. :: She was running.

For extensive discussion of the semantics of cardinal and enumerative clauses, see Davidse (1999).
Declerck (1988) in fact defines Value and Variable more narrowly as the exhaustive specification of the set of Values

corresponding to the Variable expressed by the th/wh-clause. In his approach, the concepts of Value and Variable are

restricted to it-clefts.
The analysis of, for instance, it … who am to blame as one discontinuous constituent of It is I who am to blame also

involves grammatical problems. As pointed out by Huddleston (1984: 461), the first person marking of the finite verb

cannot be reconciled with third person it.