A cleft sentence is two rearranged sentences that could otherwise be expressed by one clause. We use cleft sentences for emphasis, and it turns out they might also be contagious.
A listener named Brenda wrote,
"I have a pet peeve: It’s the way people splice two sentences, as in, ‘What we did was we went to the store to buy the new tool.’ I first noticed this in my work as communications coordinator at a community college in northern Ontario in the mid-1990s and it seemed to be adopted readily from that time."
This is what's known as a “cleft sentence” by linguists. A cleft sentence is two rearranged sentences that could otherwise be expressed by one clause.
But before we describe cleft sentences any further, it helps to go over an interesting phenomenon called "topicalization."
What Is Topicalization?
In a general sense, topicalization is used by languages to highlight or emphasize a certain part of the sentence. For example, you can say, “I have seen many movies,” or, to emphasize movies, you can also say, “There are many movies I have seen,” or even just, “Many movies, I have seen.” The first sentence—“I have seen many movies”—uses the most common English sentence structure in which direct objects (“the movies”) come after their verbs (“see”).
This reshuffling of word order might seem like a preference, but it's sometimes even required. For example, for many questions in English, we have to switch the subject with the auxiliary verb, unlike Spanish and many other languages in which you know it’s a question because the speaker's voice generally rises at the end of the sentence.
Some languages, like French, tend to topicalize more often than others. For example, in English, to say we like fish a lot, we might say, “I really like fish.” You could say this in French too, but French speakers may find it more natural to make use of topicalization here, and say, “Le poisson, j’aime bien,” which is ordered, “Fish, I like.” It’s not that we can’t also say, “Fish, I like,” in English, but we are more likely to go with the original order. Or, it might need more context in English to feel natural, like this example which creates contrast: “I do like tofu. But fish, I really like.”
You can think of topicalization as being a way to move something to the front of a sentence in order to make it the main “topic” of the sentence, which helps your listeners focus on it. French speakers topicalize more often than English speakers, even when they don’t need to add emphasis; languages just have different patterns.
The Rules of Cleft Sentences
Getting back to cleft sentences, it’s also important to know that clefting follows unconscious rules, meaning we can’t move words around willy-nilly. Any of you who have learned a second or third language as an adult have probably had to memorize some of these rules and restrictions, along with memorizing words. Some words in some sentences can’t be separated during movement, or if they are, the result doesn’t make sense. For example, you can say, “Matt is wondering whether the tomatoes are ripe,” or “Whether the tomatoes are ripe is what Matt is wondering.” But you can’t say “Tomatoes are ripe is what Matt is wondering whether the.”
Why We Use Cleft Sentences
OK, now it is important to mention here that language is generated from a finite number of words into an infinite number of possible sentences, allowing us to create and understand brand-new sentences every day, automatically. We don’t memorize the sentences we say. How does this help us understand Brenda’s question? Let’s go back to her original example:
“What we did was, we went to the store to buy the new tool.”
Brenda’s example is generally considered a type of cleft construction. A common cleft construction in English is “It was the butler who committed the murder.” Another type of cleft is this one: “What I meant to say was that I don’t want you to leave.”
In Brenda’s example, the speaker likely produced a cleft sentence in order to highlight the fact of finding the solution to the problem, instead of highlighting what the solution was. Let’s imagine some possible context. Imagine that the listener of this sentence had first said, “What did you do? Did you get the job done with the broken tool? Borrow a new tool?” Then, the answer was “Nope. What we did was, we went to the store to buy the new tool, and then we were able to finish the project on time.”