The object of study

Ball and I begin our investigations into the historical development of the English it-cleft in the exact same way, by outlining our own understanding of the proper object of study. This is especially important when investigating configurations like the it-cleft, which not only permit a variety of different analyses but are also notoriously difficult to distinguish from structurally distinct sentence-types, such as those containing extraposed subject clauses (see Haugland 1993; Calude 2008). In this section, I show that Ball and I adopt competing analyses of the present-day it-cleft which are compatible with two different sets of theoretical assumptions. In the sections that follow, I explain how this initial decision has consequences for every subsequent stage of our research.

An expletive account of it-clefts

Ball (1991, 1994) adopts an expletive analysis of it-clefts, which were popular within the generative tradition of the 1980s.[1] On this type of account, it-clefts are analysed as corresponding to their simple noncopular paraphrases, shown in (2) and (3). From this perspective, the sentence-final clause (the cleft clause) is directly predicated of (or is in some other way related to) the postcopular constituent. It follows that the initial it and (in most accounts) the copular verb do not play an important role in the interpretation of the sentence. On expletive accounts then, the cleft it is a semantically expletive "dummy" element. It is this characteristic that gives this type of analysis its name.

(2) It's [Howard]is [who plays the bassoon] [it-cleft]

(3) Howard plays the bassoon [canonical counterpart]

An expletive account of it-clefts is broadly consistent with the theoretical assumptions of generative grammar, outlined in 2.1. Here, a more complex and irregular configuration (the it-cleft) is understood in relation to a structurally simple (subject-predicate) sentence type which conforms to highly general grammatical rules. On a generative approach, sentences which share the same truth conditions typically share a level of representation. In the various expletive accounts, this is achieved underlyingly at deep structure (Rochemont 1986), via indexing at surface structure (Chomsky 1977, Heggie 1988, Williams 1980), as a result of lambda conversion at the level of logical form (Delahunty 1982, 1984), or through some combination of the above (E. Kiss 1998).

In accordance with the generative view that syntactic operations are independent of meaning, expletive accounts often take a syntax-centred approach to it-clefts. For instance, on this account, the cleft clause is structured much like a restrictive relative clause but it nevertheless performs a different function, as a non-modifying sentential predicate. Likewise, expletive accounts sometimes do not address, and other times struggle to account for, the pragmatic differences between it-clefts and their noncopular counterparts. Since, on this analysis, the only contentful elements of the it-cleft are those found in the corresponding noncopu-lar sentence, no elements remain that could be said to generate its additional pragmatic properties, including exhaustiveness and presupposition.[2] It seems then that the priority here is to show how the it-cleft's structure can be accounted for by general grammatical rules, rather than to explain what functions the it-cleft has and why it exists as a more complex alternative to simple subject-predicate sentences.[3]

  • [1] However, an early example of an expletive account is detailed in Jespersen (1937: 83-89).
  • [2] Nevertheless, E. Kiss (1998) tries to account for the pragmatic property of exhaustive identification in the syntax, as resulting from cleft structure.
  • [3] This is not to say that the objective is not worthwhile; there is certainly evidence to support the claim that the postcopular element and the cleft clause form a constituent, including number agreement, VP-constituency tests, and perhaps also syntactic connectedness. See Hedberg
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