24.2146, Review: Historical Linguistics; Syntax: Patten (2012)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-24-2146. Tue May 21 2013. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 24.2146, Review: Historical Linguistics; Syntax: Patten (2012)

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Date: Tue, 21 May 2013 20:03:32
From: Eugenio Goria [eugenio.goria at gmail.com]
Subject: The English it-Cleft: A Constructional Account and a Diachronic Investigation

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-5353.html

AUTHOR: Amanda  Patten
TITLE: The English it-Cleft
SUBTITLE: A Constructional Account and a Diachronic Investigation
SERIES TITLE: Topics in English Linguistics [TiEL] 79
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Eugenio Goria, Università degli Studi di Pavia


Amanda Patten’s work is a significant new contribution to the field of cleft
constructions, a topic which has been given different theoretical and
methodological treatments, but which still leaves a good number of open
problems encouraging present and future research. The book consists of about
250 pages, where the author discusses English ‘it’-clefts both synchronically,
focussing on structural and pragmatic properties, and diachronically, showing
the development of the construction from Old to Modern English. The framework
adopted is construction grammar and she fully exploits the tools provided by
this approach, in that she holds a monostratal view of language structure, and
in that she considers the ‘it’-cleft’s meaning as non-compositional,
determined by the construction itself, and motivated both by more schematic
constructions and by extension from the prototype.

In chapter 1 Patten gives an overview of the entire work, concentrating on the
relevant features of ‘it’-clefts, and then discussing past literature on the
topic. She distinguishes between two different approaches, namely the
“expletive approach”, based on the notion that elements like ‘it’ and ‘was’
are semantically empty function words, and the “extraposition approach”, based
on the tenet that ‘it’-clefts are an instance of a specificational sentence,
where the first ‘it’ is a non-empty pronoun modified by an extraposed
restrictive relative. In the author’s view, the meaning of ‘it’-clefts comes
from the meaning of the more schematic ‘specificational copular sentences’,
through the synchronic cognitive process which in construction grammar has
been called inheritance. She rejects then the notion of syntactic derivation
like the one suggested, for instance, in Akmajian (1970): in the author’s
view, ‘it’-clefts are as basic as copular sentences, but they are more
specific, more lexical in a lexicon-syntax continuum.

Chapter 2 is a short overview of the principles of construction grammar, as a
way to explain highly idiosyncratic linguistic patterns like clefts
synchronically in terms of a hierarchy where constructional meaning is
inherited by specialised, lexically filled constructions, from more general
and lexically open ones. Patten gives a constructional description of
linguistic change where token frequency of one specific element accounts for
its entrenchment in the system and fossilisation, while type frequency is
responsible for the entrenchment of a more general schema. New types are seen
as extensions from this prototype. In this view of language structure, the
‘it’-cleft is thus motivated both synchronically, by inheritance from
specificational copular constructions, and diachronically, through
fossilisation of no longer productive elements and extensions from the

Chapter 3 is dedicated to specificational copular constructions. According to
Higgins (1979) specification can be viewed as the function of listing the
members of a set, and in the ‘inverse approach’ partly followed by the author
this listing function is regarded as the inverse of nominal predication. The
author addresses here the ‘NP be NP’ copular structures, pointing out the
difference between ‘John is the best surgeon’ (predicative) and ‘The best
surgeon is John’ (specificational). The inversion is motivated by an
information structure constraint, which forces the Focus to follow the Topic,
while the definiteness of the first NP accounts for the property of
exhaustiveness shown by the construction. Both predicative and specificational
sentences are part of a more general “predicate nominal semantics” category,
which is employed to give an account of ‘pseudo-clefts’, namely wh-clefts
(‘what I bought was a Swiss watch’), th-clefts (‘the thing I bought was a
Swiss watch’), and all-clefts (‘all I bought was a Swiss watch’). Such
structures are seen as more specific constructions depending on the
‘specificational inversion construction’ with which they share many features.
It follows from this that the structure sometimes called the ‘reverse
pseudo-cleft’ (‘a Swiss watch is what I bought’) no longer has to be accounted
for in terms of the output of a movement rule; instead, it is described as
simply inheriting from the ‘non-inversion copular construction’, a more
general structure like ‘JOHN is the best surgeon’, where ‘John’ is in focus.
In this way, the notion of an independent pseudocleft-construction category is
totally eliminated.

Chapter 4 gives a Construction Grammar account of English ‘it’-clefts. The
author provides a discontinuous constituent interpretation, according to which
the embedded clause is extraposed from a definite NP whose head is the
semantically underspecified element ‘it’. Patten illustrates the functional
properties of ‘it’-clefts, such as the focality of the clefted constituent,
its contrastiveness, the exhaustiveness of the specificational meaning, and
the triggering of presupposition. She next describes the structural properties
of the construction, accounting for the behaviour of the cleft clause, which
seems like a less prototypical restrictive relative. Among these properties,
particular emphasis is given to agreement: evidence is given that the ‘it’
element and the relative clause stand in a subject-verb relationship, which is
far easier to account for if the existence of a discontinuous constituent is

In chapter 5 the author addresses less prototypical ‘it’-clefts, namely
predicational clefts (‘it was an interesting meeting that I went to last
night’, ‘where interesting’ is part of the predicate; cf. Declerck 1988) and
proverbial clefts (‘it’s a long road that has no turns’, with the same
information structure as ‘a road which has no turns is a long one’). These
structures are shown to inherit their specific features from the predicate
nominal construction, while their formal properties come from the ‘it’-cleft
schema. She then illustrates how, in a discontinuous constituent account, the
referring expression of a specificational ‘it’-cleft does not have to be an
NP, allowing a non-nominal focus in post-copular position such as PP. This
perspective avoids a highly idiosyncratic treatment, while it leaves open the
question of the type of constituent that can enter in the construction. The
third type of construction is informative presupposition ‘it’-clefts, which
have the discourse pragmatic function of immediately integrating a piece of
information into the hearer’s knowledge, exploiting the fixed argument
structure of the cleft construction.

The second part of the book is dedicated to a diachronic study of the English
‘it’ (i.e. the antecedent of relative clauses) were frequently modified by
sentence-final restrictive relative clauses. In particular, this pattern is
very common with ‘hit’ (> it), which has animate reference. Sentence final
position, in fact, was strongly preferred until Early Middle English. When ME
began to have unextraposed relatives, ‘it’-clefts retained this ancient
feature. On a historical basis, number agreement is not problematic, as
‘it/hit’ is an underspecified element that can take both singular and plural
reference. Gender agreement as well gives good evidence for a discontinuous
analysis: in the most frequent pattern, the only instance of gender agreement
happens to be between the determinative pronoun ‘hit’, which is
morphologically neuter, and the inflected relative pronoun, which is neuter as
well, while the clefted constituent can be either masculine or feminine. For
the author this is strong evidence that the determinative pronoun and the
relative clause form a discontinuous constituent.

Chapter 7 discusses the diachronic development of the ‘it’-cleft and the
conventionalisation of its form. After illustrating the structure of her
corpora, the author briefly discusses some non-’it’-cleft structures that she
did not include in this part of the work, and then she presents some
quantitative data which show the apparent increasing of specificational clefts
from OE to Modern British English. In this account, the original syntactic
constraints undergo a process of “relaxation” (p. 197) which allows more
freedom both in the selection of the Focus constituent, and in the semantic
and pragmatic value of the cleft clause. Elements such as abstract nouns, PPs
and adverbials are increasingly more frequent in Focus position, and the
embedded clause gradually acquires the possibility to introduce, in addition
to presupposed information, “shared but not salient information” (p. 211) and
discourse-new information.

In chapter 8 the author discusses the theoretical implications of her
synchronic and diachronic investigation. The developments highlighted in
chapter 7 are seen as instances of extension from the prototype: while the
syntactic structure remains nearly unchanged, language use brings out new
functions that account for the constructionalisation of the structure, which
becomes a more schematic and productive structure. From the same structure,
new and more specific forms such as informative presupposition clefts arise,
through a process of semantic and pragmatic expansion. The author then
addresses some differences between ‘it’-clefts and wh-clefts, such as the
different range of foci allowed by each construction, and their different
discourse functions: while the relative clause of an ‘it’-cleft develops a
performative function connected with discourse-old information, and it
strongly prefers noun-like expressions in focus, wh-clefts often have phrasal
or adjective foci, are more connected with inferable information, and tend to
develop a presentative meaning.

Chapter 9 draws the final conclusions of the work, and indicates as
territories for further research the relationship between specification and
definiteness, and the diachronic study of specification inversion


The book is generally well written: a comprehensive sketch of the work is
given in the first pages, and every step is summarized at the end of each
chapter and even in the middle in order to make the explanation very clear,
especially to people who may be unfamiliar with the author’s framework. It is
remarkable also that Patten always tries to compare her account with linguists
of different views on the topic, underlining points of contact as well as the

The author’s data discussion, both in the synchronic and in the diachronic
part, is well argued and generally convincing, even though there is no doubt
that this is not an introductory manual: readers must have done previous
readings on construction grammar and on cleft sentences in order to fully
appreciate Patten’s account, but she tries her best to make it clear and easy.
The only weak point is that many interesting issues that could give an
important contribution to the topic are left out because they are not so
central in the author’s analysis. For example, ‘there’-clefts are only
marginally treated as an example of a non-exhaustive cleft, but they also seem
closely related with a presentative meaning, as in Lambrecht’s (2001) example
“There’s a linguist who wants to explain clefts.”

In general, it would be interesting to compare Patten’s findings on a
contrastive basis with other languages of Europe: in particular, languages
which allow a null subject such as Italian could be a partial challenge to the
discontinuous constituent analysis. The final question arising from the
reading of the book is: if cleft constructions are very similar in their form
and function across many languages, what are the reasons that motivate
language-specific differences? Is Patten’s account extendable to other


Akmajian, Adrian. 1970, “On deriving cleft sentences from pseudo-cleft
sentences”. Linguistic Inquiry 1(2): 149-168.

Declerck, Renaat. 1988. Studies on copular sentences, clefts and
pseudo-clefts. Leuven: Leuven University Press/Dordrecht: Foris.

Higgins, F. Roger. 1979, The pseudo-cleft construction in English. New York,
Garland Publishing.

Lambrecht, Knud. 2001, “A framework for the analysis of cleft constructions”.
Linguistics, 39, 3. pp. 463-516.


Since October 2012 I am a PhD student at Pavia University. My interests are
linguistic typology, sociolinguistics of the Italian dialects and language
contact. In the past I have worked on a thesis about Latin cleft sentences,
and at present I am working on the evolution of the speakers' repertory in
north-western Italy and on bilingual situations involving codeswitching

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