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July 2014
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Grammatically Speaking
by T. Leo Schmitt

If you have a question for Grammatically Speaking, please send it to We welcome all types of language questions.

Dear Mr. Schmitt,

After teaching a class on being concise, I have students who ask me about “unnecessary” words in sentences, such as “John was the man who worked at the bank,” instead of “John worked at the bank.” or “The Rhine is the river that forms much of the border between France and Germany,” rather than “The Rhine forms much of the border between France and Germany.” I think there is a difference here, but I do not know how to explain it to my students. Do you have any suggestions?

Annie L

Traditional Grammatical Explanation

Dear Annie,

Thank you for the fascinating question. The two examples you give are examples of cleft sentences, while the shorter alternatives are simple sentences. A cleft sentence combines an independent and relative/adjective clause. A cleft sentence can take a pattern that looks something like “X is the Y that/who does something,” where the independent clause uses the verb “to be.” You give two good examples. 

A structure like this includes a sense of presupposition. In the example you give, it is understood that somebody works at the bank. Our cleft sentence here indicates that the individual in question is John. This becomes clear if we try negating the two sentences: “John was not the man who worked at the bank.” the presumption is that there is a different man working there. In contrast, if we say “John did not work at the bank,” there may be no bank at all or it may be staffed entirely by women. There is no presumption of any man working at the bank.

Your students make a point that these are not absolutely “necessary” words. However, one of the many beauties of language is that we can express an idea in a wide variety of ways, using a wide variety of words and grammatical structures. While their general gist is essentially the same, the choice of language that we use can make subtle, and sometimes important, differences that allow us to express ever deeper and more complicated thoughts. Thus “John was the man who worked at the bank” and “John worked at the bank” both express the same essential concept. The latter is short and to the point. However, the latter adds a degree of emphasis that is not otherwise present. For example, when referring to two people, for example John and David, this form will allow the writer to emphasize how John differs from David.  It could also be read that the two people are, for example, John and Mary, where John is the man (who works at the bank). 

The relative/adjective clause following the initial independent clause is usually of secondary importance in a cleft sentence and the initial part has the emphasis. 

Teaching Tips

Clearly this kind of differentiation is for advanced students. For lower level students who encounter this pattern, it may suffice to briefly explain this as an alternative. 

For advanced students, it may be useful to have them examine multiple examples of cleft sentences and compare them with noncleft sentences holding the same meaning (as in the examples you gave). Teasing apart some of the subtleties of different structures expressing the same basic meaning is a challenge for advanced writers, whether native or nonnative. By seeing multiple examples in context, students should begin to get a better feel for how and when to use these patterns. 

Language Notes

Cleft sentences allow a writer to foreground a specific thought in a sentence. Although they are also used in spoken English, they seem to be more common in writing, most likely because speech offers other ways to emphasize an idea, such as stress or tone. 

In an age when we can bold, italicize, or underline, it may be possible that patterns like this that serve as a form of emphasis in written language may eventually disappear or become less pervasive. However, as long as human beings seek to express increasingly complex ideas with the wonder of human language, Orwell’s newspeak remains an unlikely end result. Concision is often a desirable quality in writing, but there are many times, especially when discussing complex and challenging ideas, when more words and more complex grammatical patterns are not just appropriate but necessary. For me, being concise means using as few words as necessary, but also never fewer than necessary. And even the greatest writers (among whom I certainly do not count myself) may miss that mark. 

There are other varieties of cleft sentences including structures such as “What worked best was soliciting the occasional fact.” Clefts can be quite complicated.

Last Month's Brain Teaser

Look at the two sentences below. What traditional rule of grammar do they both appear to violate? How would you explain this to an English learner?

  1. What’s more sad on NPR this morning: a story on villages infested with tuberculosis in Tajikistan* who refuse to believe the disease is spread through airborne contact, assuming it is cold water that causes it or interviews with fangirls at the red carpet premiere of the Lone Ranger who believe that the movie will be a good history lesson?
  2. Bragging is cool but bragging with evidence is more cool.”

Dear Mr. Schmitt,

The use of the comparative forms "more sad" and "more cool" would be classified as errors in traditional grammars. The prescriptive rule generally states that one-syllable adjectives form the comparative with the inflectional affix "–er" to make "sadder" and "cooler."

Interestingly, descriptive grammarians note a trend toward using the periphrastic construction "more" + adjective. A quick look at the history of the English language shows that there is a tendency in English to do away with inflectional endings. In Old English and Middle English, there were many more inflectional endings.  Another example of this is the disappearance of the "–st" inflectional ending in "thou goest" (which is now "you go"). 

If a citation is needed, Diane Larsen-Freeman referred to this trend at the 2014 TESOL convention during her presentation "Complexity Theory: Renewing Our Understanding of Language, Learning, and Teaching." She used the example "more clear" to illustrate the difference between an error and an innovation.  "More" + adjective is an innovation, and it's catching on!

Thanks for reading, 
Roisin Dewart
Université du Québec à Montréal

Thank you, Ms. Dewart. The traditional rule for adjectives is that short (usually one-syllable) adjectives take an “-er” for the comparative. However, there does seem to be a trend, as you and Diane Larsen-Freeman note, toward using “more + adjective.” This has been around for a while, and we will see if it really catches on!

This Month's Brain Teaser

Look at the two sentences below. What traditional rule of grammar do they both appear to violate? How would you explain this to an English learner?

  1. I never was nor never will be false.” 
  2. It don’t mean nothing if it don’t mean something so you don’t mean nothing to me.”

The best correct answer will be published in the next column of Grammatically Speaking.

Please e-mail your responses to

When writing to Grammatically Speaking, please include your name and location (city and state, province, or country). If your question or response is selected for publication, your name and location will be printed unless you specify otherwise.

Examples cited in this column are authentic examples of language use and are not the author’s creations.

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Drawing Songs of Literacy in a Multilingual Classroom
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Teaching Intros and Conclusions to ELLs
Quick Tip: 3 Tips for Diving Into Online Instruction
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