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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton December 14, 2020

Form variation of pronominal it-clefts in written English

A corpus study in Twitter and iWeb

  • Luca Bevacqua EMAIL logo and Tatjana Scheffler ORCID logo
From the journal Linguistics Vanguard


Clefts are well-studied as a construction which induces emphasis on its clefted referent. However, little is known about the distribution of different stylistic forms of it-cleft variants. We report on a corpus study mining data from Twitter, targeting sentences clefting a pronoun in English. We examine the following features: case and syntactic role of the clefted pronoun, contraction of the copula, choice of complementiser and use of emphasis markers. The results show systematic associations between these features. A further comparison between the Twitter dataset and data from iWeb, a corpus of general-use web language, shows significant differences in levels of emphasis and formality, positioning Twitter language in the middle of the conceptual orality spectrum.

1 Introduction

Cleft constructions such as (1–3) are used to focus the clefted referent, enhancing its prominence and making it more accessible for re-mention in subsequent discourse.

It’s she that this post honors.[1]
It is him who has caused her to smile brightly.
What John lost was his keys. (Prince, 1978)

There are well-studied and clear pragmatic differences between English it-clefts such as (1–2), and wh-clefts (3) (Prince 1978). In contrast, there is less existing research discussing possible differences between form variants: the use of contraction, case of the pronoun and complementiser vary between sentences (1) and (2). In this paper, we investigate these form variants in more detail. In particular, we want to determine which means are used to mark or emphasise the clefted referent. To do this, we study naturally occurring it-clefts in data extracted from the social media platform Twitter: this allows us to tap into relatively spontaneous utterances containing clefts as a focussing construction. We show that the observed variation is by no means random: instead, we identify formality as a driving factor for expressing emphasis in the Twitter clefts, which leads to three preferred variants of it-clefts in English spontaneous written text. We compare our findings with another corpus of web data, i.e. iWeb (Davies 2018), containing more strongly edited but still variable content. This corpus shows much less variation, because standards promoted in editing guidelines result in an almost categorical preference of certain forms. Our systematic investigation of a relatively rare phenomenon in a big dataset opens up new directions for explaining expressions of focus, emphasis, and the formality gradient in English.

In the following section, we report some findings on it-clefts, emphasis, and formality from the literature (Section 2). Afterwards, we present our corpus study, first within Twitter, and then as a comparison between Twitter and iWeb (Section 3). We note a systematic association of more informal (contraction, accusative-case pronouns, that as a complementiser and emphasis markers) and formal (uncontracted clefts, nominative case, and who) features, as well as a general wider variation of these features in Twitter writing than in iWeb’s, positioning Twitter in a more central position in the “conceptual orality” spectrum (Koch and Oesterreicher 1985). Finally, we discuss these results in the light of the background literature and rules of prescriptive grammars (Section 4 and 5).

2 Background

2.1 It-clefts

If a focus is pragmatically needed, e.g. to contrast a piece of information, it will usually be grammatically marked, either prosodically or morphosyntactically, or both (Lambrecht 1994: p. 64). The expression of this marking can eventually be conventionalised, and cleft constructions are a good example of such grammaticalisation.

English it-clefts consist of the pronoun it, followed by a form of the verb to be, a clefted constituent, and a complementiser, which introduces a relative clause that is attributed of the clefted phrase (Lambrecht 2001). It-clefts introduce two meaning parts: (i) a presupposition that the property in the clause following the complementiser holds of some entity; and (ii) an assertion (at-issue contribution) that this property holds of the entity denoted by the clefted constituent. We will thus call the clause following the complementiser the presupposed clause, following Prince (1978); the clefted constituent is also called the focussed constituent.

The literature on clefts has concentrated on several central questions of syntax and semantics. On the one hand, research has addressed the issue of the underlying syntactic structure of cleft sentences. On the other hand, given that the truth conditions between a cleft sentence and its corresponding simple clause do not differ, there has been discussion about the exact pragmatic contribution of using a cleft construction, especially with regard to information structure (Delin 1992).

Here, we focus on the form of the cleft construction itself, which offers a lot of variability within the frame defined above. We identify the following “moving parts” of it-clefts:

a. Contraction: The copula be may appear contracted or uncontracted.
b. Case: The clefted constituent may be in nominative or accusative case. In English, this feature is only visible in pronouns.
c. Complementiser: The complementiser in the relative clause can be that or a wh-complementiser. In the case of clefted objects, the complementiser may even be empty (Quirk et al. 1985: p. 1385), but we did not consider this particular case.[2]

The example in (1) illustrates a contracted, nominative cleft with the complementiser that, whereas (2) is an uncontracted, accusative cleft with who as the complementiser.

Of these features of variation in clefts, Maier (2013, 2014) studies the case of the pronoun using corpora. Maier (2013) shows that the form of the pronoun is influenced not only by its position in the sentence, but also by its function, with variation related to the discourse medium: while written language prefers nominative-case pronouns, spoken English uses more accusatives. Maier (2014) accounts for the variation in case with information structural rationale, claiming that the nominative case of English pronouns in clefts was refunctionalised to signal emphasis (which he calls “focus”). We note that since he investigates both it-clefts and other related constructions together, the conclusion that it-clefts with nominal case pronouns are more emphatic than the accusative ones does not strictly follow from his statistical analysis.

The case of the pronoun in it-clefts is also mentioned by Patten (2010, 2012). Patten notes how the case of the pronoun is fundamental to the type of syntactic account: under an expletive account (in which the cleft is used to mark a sentence with the addition of a “dummy” element), the case of the postcopular element should be nominative, but this pattern “is not found in the dialect of the majority of speakers” (Patten 2010: p. 146, reporting a finding in Akmajian 1970). However, using the ICE-GB corpus (Nelson et al. 1998), Patten (2012) shows that clefted pronouns in the nominative are almost twice as frequent as those in the accusative (with a proviso of very low counts for either), and agrees with Akmajian (1970) in interpreting this as the preference for a prestige form, which gives an appearance of formality. This is further confirmed by a corpus study in Biber et al. (1999), where clefts with a nominative pronoun and who are frequent in fiction and news despite a general predominance of the accusative form. This is motivated claiming that nominative forms may be perceived to be more correct, possibly because of prescriptive rules moulded on those of Latin grammar.

As for complementisers, Collins (1991) finds that about two-thirds of it-clefts contain that, but most other wh-words are viable for the role. Cheshire et al. (2013) conduct an in-depth investigation of complementisers in restrictive relative clauses. They find that who is used almost exclusively in subject relative clauses. The choice of complementiser shows a strong variation in their data, though for younger speakers, most instances are realised with that. The complementiser that is the most general (lacking the animacy requirement of who). For some speakers, Cheshire et al. (2013) conclude that the subject preference of who is being grammaticalised as (additional) “topic” marking, in the sense that referents relativised with who are more salient (therefore, more available for re-mention or more “topic-worthy”) in subsequent discourse.

Looking at their distribution across registers, Collins (1991) notes that clefts outnumber pseudo-clefts in writing, while the opposite happens in speaking. Within spoken genres, it-clefts are more used in prepared monologues than in dialogues, further pointing in a direction of higher formality. However, internal features such as the case of the pronoun or the complementiser of the cleft are not analysed.

We are not aware of studies that systematically investigate multiple axes of variability in English it-clefts. In this study, we will consider these variants within a theory of emphasis marking.

2.2 Emphasis

We define emphasis as a linguistic means chosen by a speaker to direct a hearer’s attention, for example to help single out an intended referent (Zimmermann 2008). This concept has been inconsistently referred to throughout the pragmatics literature, being at times likened to prosodic stress (e.g. Heath 2018) and often used interchangeably with other under-defined or theory-specific terms such as “prominence” or “salience”. Clefts of all kinds are emphatic in the sense that, as reflected by their prosodic prominence (Lambrecht 2000), they identify the clefted element as something that the speaker considers especially worthy of attention, because of its status as new or contrastive information. In addition to the grammaticalised emphatic function of clefts, syntactic or morphological (or indeed prosodic) cues exist and can be used by the speaker to indicate particular emphasis.

Computer-mediated communication, being written, does not mark emphasis prosodically. However, it makes available a large range of other emphasis markers, that have been shown to take information structural roles. McAteer (1992) studies how the alteration of typeface can mark information focus in a way completely akin to intonational signals. Some of these are standard in writing and have conventionalised functions, such as punctuation or paragraphing, others are not, like all caps or boldface. These functions are included by McAteer (1992), along with clefting, in a set of “foregrounding strategies” that a writer can employ to mark contrast and emphasis. In more recent work on writing in social media, Heath (2018) identifies non-standard capitalisation as a marker of focus and emphasis, while Scott (2015) analyses hashtags as topic markers.

To study the variable encoding of the cleft construction and its relation to emphasis marking, we annotate these types of emphasis phenomena in our data:

Types of emphasis marking:
Capital pronoun: The clefted pronoun is capitalised: e.g. “it’s HE that’s threatened us”
Capital initial: The first letter of the clefted pronoun is capitalised: e.g. “it is She who has to live with the consequences”
Capital cleft: The whole cleft is capitalised: e.g. “it’s HIM WHO IS THE PROBLEM”
Exclamation: The cleft contains exclamation points: e.g. “it is he who holds all the baggage!”
Non-standard comma: Non-standardly placed comma to mimic prosody: e.g. “it is he, that is my one true love”
Asterisks: Asterisks around the clefted pronoun: e.g. “it’s *he* who did it”
Other: Other strategies, such as tildes or inverted commas around the clefted pronoun.

Social media has been shown to innovate written language systematically, with a big influence coming from spoken language: for example, spelling on Twitter appears to follow phonological variations relatively frequently (Eisenstein 2013a). Non-standard emphasis markers are, likewise, more widespread in social media than in standard written language.

2.3 Formality

Another dimension which interacts with emphasis, in particular in social media, is formality. Heylighen and Dewaele (1999) define expressivity of language (which is another reshaping of emphasis in that it corresponds to linguistic genres with high detail and emotionality) as well as formality in terms of the orthogonal variability axes fuzziness and context-dependence. In this view, context-dependence refers to the amount of inference that has to be made in order to interpret an expression, fuzziness refers to the opposite of semantic precision of expression. Formal style will tend to minimise fuzziness and context-dependence, while expressive language is precise (not fuzzy) but highly context-dependent.

In this account, expressivity is a linear combination of precision (-fuzziness) and context-dependence: for example, a proper name will be much less fuzzy than a pronoun, which will in turn be highly context-dependent. Likewise, the two complementisers will vary along the fuzziness axis: who, with its [+animate] trait, includes more information than that, and being more precise it will be more formal and more expressive. Its use could thus correlate with the avoidance of contraction in the cleft sentence (which increases its phonological weight and thus the formality of the register: see Kjellmer (1997) for extensive examples). Similarly, the use of emphasis markers indicates increased expressiveness and could thus be associated with uncontracted clefts, or with a more precise form of the complementiser like who.

Further, it is known that social media are a highly informal medium, often reflecting features frequently found in spoken conversations more than written texts (cf. Tagliamonte and Denis 2008; Storrer 2013; Scheffler 2017). This places social media texts in the middle of the “conceptual orality” spectrum (Koch and Oesterreicher 1985) which moves along an axis of medium (spoken to written) and one of formality (informal to formal). Since emphasis by itself is also an effect of markedness, the specific use of a formal variant in social media would constitute a marked case and thus increase the overall emphasis of the utterance. In the following, we investigate the use of formal and emphatic variants of it-clefts in Twitter data.

3 Empirical study

We present a systematic empirical study which aims to classify it-cleft variants along emphasis and formality dimensions. It-clefts are a rare phenomenon in spoken and written corpora: for example, the iWeb corpus (Davies 2018) only contains about 4000 of them, a very low number for a corpus including texts from more than 22 million web pages. In addition, a well-founded comparison of naturally occurring it-clefts from corpora should aim to exclude factors which can potentially confound the information structure, syntactic variation, and interpretation of the utterance. In particular, this concerns the syntactic and prosodic type of the clefted phrase, as well as its meaning (for example, length and weight of the phrase, animacy of the referent, etc.). We therefore choose to look only at it-clefts with clefted third-person pronouns. Unfortunately, this restriction makes most existing corpora too small for statistical analysis. Mining Twitter for data, conversely, still provides a good amount of examples to study. In addition to data availability, Twitter as a medium has another advantage for studying this phenomenon: as indicated above, since “standard” language norms are less applicable here, we expect increased variability in the observed forms of structures such as clefts.

We first mined tweets with it-clefts and one of the authors annotated them (see Section 3.1). After an initial analysis, new Twitter data was collected to internally validate the findings using the same analysis on a second sample. Finally, we extracted clefts from the iWeb corpus (Davies 2018), replicated the analysis in its data, and compared the results with the Twitter data.[3]

3.1 First data collection and annotation

Tweets including at least one cleft were collected on 25th to 29th March 2019 using TAGS (Hawksey 2016). The queries were url-encoded to target specific tweets without excluding other factors such as emphasis markers or punctuation, and excluded retweets.[4] The features targeted in the searches are listed in (4): contraction, case of the pronoun, and complementiser. This means all it-clefts introduced with or without a contraction (it’s [5] and it is), with a third person singular pronoun in either nominative or accusative case, and that or who as a complementiser, followed by a presupposed clause of any length.

All tweets using a cleft in the context of a quote from sacred scriptures (e.g. “But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth”) were manually removed from the dataset because they are representative of a different register of language. Many of these appeared multiple times as “quotes of the day”. This left the dataset with a total of 798 tweets that conform to our constraints.[6]

The data was manually annotated for the following features:

Number of referents: 1 for clefts wherein only one referent was mentioned (e.g. “it’s he that needs to go”), 2 for clefts involving two referents (e.g. “it’s she that called him”).

Role of the clefted element: Subject (e.g. “it is he that assisted Castro”) versus Object (e.g. “it is he that I will respond to”). This annotation only concerns clefts with two referents (i.e. clefts with both a subject and an object).

Emphasis: presence of emphasis markers: see Section 2.2.

Cleft: text of the cleft(s), isolated from the rest of the tweet.

45 tweets (5.6% of the total) contained multiple clefts. Only the first cleft of every tweet was considered in the following analysis.

3.2 Twitter data analysis

The first analysis targets the full dataset and some of the features annotated in the tweets. The basic distribution of the three main factors listed in (4) (contraction, pronoun case and complementiser) is shown in Figure 1. It can be gathered that in general clefts in English-language tweets are more often contracted and contain an accusative pronoun with the complementiser who. Moreover, more clefts with masculine than with feminine pronouns are produced (489 vs 309, 61.3 vs 38.7%; this ratio is not visualised).

Figure 1: 
Ratios of the three features in the data set.
Figure 1:

Ratios of the three features in the data set.

Figure 2 shows the distribution of all eight combinations of the main features considered. It seems evident that the features are not distributed randomly: three combinations dominate the picture. About equally frequent, they together account for about 3/4 of the it-cleft occurrences. These are exemplified in (6):[7]

Figure 2: 
Distribution of the eight feature combinations in the data. The outline of the bars distinguishes uncontracted (continuous line) from contracted (segmented line) clefts, the color of the bar distinguishes the case of the pronoun (nominative = red, accusative = blue), and the intensity of the color distinguishes the complementiser (who = full color, that = transparency).
Figure 2:

Distribution of the eight feature combinations in the data. The outline of the bars distinguishes uncontracted (continuous line) from contracted (segmented line) clefts, the color of the bar distinguishes the case of the pronoun (nominative = red, accusative = blue), and the intensity of the color distinguishes the complementiser (who = full color, that = transparency).

Uncontr-NOM-who: it is she who has the power
Contr-ACC-who: it’s her who has to do it
Contr-ACC-that: it’s him that is the target

In the following, we statistically evaluate the correlations between the individual features. Given that no direction of effect can be discerned, chi-squared tests[8] were used to test for the associations and Cramér’s V for their strength. Cohen’s (1988) guidelines were used to evaluate the strength of the effects, with 0.1 < V < 0.3 indicating a small, 0.3 < V < 0.5 a medium, and V > 0.5 a large effect size. We report only significant effects, except where noted otherwise.

The case of the pronoun is associated with both the use of contraction ( χ 2 = 230.02 , p < 0.0001 , V = 0.54 : large effect size) and the presence of emphasis markers ( χ 2 = 12.47 , p < 0.001 , V = 0.13 : small effect size). This means that clefts are more contracted with accusative pronouns and less with nominative pronouns, and that emphasis markers co-occur significantly more often with nominative case pronouns. These effects are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: 
Associations of pronoun case with contraction and emphasis. Figures 3–6 show the co-occurrence of two features, represented on the x axis and through colour. The y axis shows the proportion of each combination.
Figure 3:

Associations of pronoun case with contraction and emphasis. Figures 36 show the co-occurrence of two features, represented on the x axis and through colour. The y axis shows the proportion of each combination.

Figure 4: 
Associations of complementisers with case and contraction.
Figure 4:

Associations of complementisers with case and contraction.

Figure 5: 
Distribution of case and syntactic role in clefts with two referents. The difference between subjects and objects is not statistically significant.
Figure 5:

Distribution of case and syntactic role in clefts with two referents. The difference between subjects and objects is not statistically significant.

Figure 6: 
Associations of complementisers with the syntactic role of the clefted element.
Figure 6:

Associations of complementisers with the syntactic role of the clefted element.

The choice of complementiser is associated with the case of the pronoun: nominative pronouns are used more frequently with who ( χ 2 = 78.31 , p < 0.0001 , V = 0.31 : medium effect size). Moreover, the complementiser who co-occurs significantly more with uncontracted clefts ( χ 2 = 19.46 , p < 0.0001 , V = 0.16 : small effect size). The two effects are visualised in Figure 4.

3.3 Syntactic role of clefted pronouns

Subsetting the data to the 148 clefts involving two referents, an obvious prevalence of clefts of the subject can be seen (112 vs 36, 75.7 vs 24.3%). While the subject is naturally a topical element in the information structure of an utterance, the object often provides new information, making it less necessary to mark explicitly with a focus.

In structural positions, the pronoun case is determined by the syntactic role the pronoun occupies (with nominative for subjects, and accusative for objects). However, this is not found in the clefted positions in our data. There is no significant association of the syntactic role of the clefted element with the case of the pronoun ( χ 2 = 3.67 , p = 0.06 ). As shown in Figure 5, both subjects and objects are more likely to appear in accusative case in our Twitter data.

No significant association of syntactic role with the use of contraction in the cleft was found ( χ 2 = 0.004 , p = 0.95 ), nor with the presence of emphasis markers ( χ 2 = 1.5 , p = 0.22 ). On the other hand, the syntactic role is associated with the complementiser: clefts of the subject co-occur significantly more with who rather than that ( χ 2 = 15.47 , p < 0.0001 , V = 0.32 : medium effect size). This is visualised in Figure 6.

3.4 Replication

The associations above were confirmed with a second, not manually annotated batch of 616 tweets mined on eighth May 2019. Table 1 compares percentages in the two datasets. Three of the chi-squared and Cramér’s V tests could be replicated on the non-annotated data, yielding similar results (see Table 2). This replication shows that the results from our first analysis are stable across data samples.

Table 1:

Ratios within the target features in the two batches of data.

First batch Second batch
Contracted | Uncontracted 60.8 % | 39.2 % 65.7 % | 34.3 %
Accusative | Nominative 61.0 % | 39.0 % 60.7 % | 39.3 %
That | Who 35.8 % | 64.2 % 42.6 % | 58.4 %
Table 2:

Comparison of χ2 and Cramér’s V tests on the two batches of data. All p < 0.001 .

First batch Second batch
Contraction Case χ 2 = 230.02 , V = 0.54 χ 2 = 261.99 , V = 0.65
Complementiser Case χ 2 = 78.31 , V = 0.31 χ 2 = 89.68 , V = 0.38
Contraction Complementiser χ 2 = 19.46 , V = 0.16 χ 2 = 27.95 , V = 0.21

3.5 Comparison between Twitter and general web English

These associations were then recalculated on the results of corpus searches in the iWeb Corpus (Davies 2018), a 14-billion-word corpus of written English data from 94k+ systematically-chosen websites.

Within the 4056 pronominal it-clefts found in the iWeb corpus, all associations seen in the Twitter data are replicated (with p < 0.001 ). Case is associated with contraction ( χ 2 = 783.24 , V = 0.44 ) and with complementiser choice ( χ 2 = 362.28 , V = 0.3 ), and contraction is associated with complementiser choice ( χ 2 = 89.15 , V = 0.15 ). While the effects are more significant, likely because of the dimensions of the corpus, Cramér’s V figures show slightly smaller effects (especially for the association of contraction and pronoun case). Note that same direction of the effects will be confirmed through logistic regression.

The Twitter and iWeb results were compared through chi-squared tests in a 2 × 16 contingency table (including gender among the variations), computing p-values by Monte Carlo simulation (Hope 1968) because of the low counts for some of the structures. A significant difference was found ( χ 2 = 1827.5 , p < 0.001 ) between how Twitter and general-purpose (web) English use clefts of different types. Figure 7 shows how Twitter users adopt more accusative pronouns and contractions, while all-purpose language in iWeb attests at a more formal level avoiding contraction, as dictated by some style manuals, e.g. the Wikipedia Manual of Style (Wikipedia contributors 2019). Nominative pronouns are used more outside of Twitter, mostly because of the very high frequency of the structure It is he who (forming 77% of all nominative-pronoun structures). Complementisers are used similarly across genres.

Figure 7: 
Comparison of the iWeb corpus with Twitter. The features on the right-hand side of each plot are those more heavily prescribed in writing (nominative case, avoidance of contraction, and who).
Figure 7:

Comparison of the iWeb corpus with Twitter. The features on the right-hand side of each plot are those more heavily prescribed in writing (nominative case, avoidance of contraction, and who).

A generalised mixed-effects logistic regression (Bates et al. 2015) was fitted to predict the “genre” binary (Twitter vs iWeb) from the features of the clefts, i.e. case, contraction and complementiser, with a random effect for the gender of the pronoun (not assumed to display systematic variation across genres). All predictors were two-level factors. Model comparison was conducted via asymptotic likelihood ratio tests between a model without interactions, one adding the two-way interactions, and one additionally including the three-way interaction. Maximal random effect structure was used when supported by the data (as recommended by Barr et al. 2013): the random effects were successively simplified, chosen by lowest variance, until convergence was reached. The final model included a random intercept for pronoun gender. Adding the two-way interactions improved the fit ( p < 0.001 ), while the three-way interaction did not ( p = 0.45 ). The model results are reported in Table 3.

Table 3:

Twitter and iWeb comparison: model fixed effects. Each factor is reported by one of its two complementary variants (e.g. “Nominative” as one of the instances of case), and the estimates describe an increase (or decrease) on a logit scale.

Effect Estimate Std.Error z value Pr( > | z | )
(Intercept) 1.09 0.29 3.75 < 0.001 ***
Nominative 0.74 0.30 2.44 0.015 *
Uncontracted 1.75 0.22 7.79 < 0.001 ***
Who 0.13 0.19 0.72 0.47
Nominative:Uncontracted 0.44 0.25 1.73 0.08
Uncontracted:Who 0.26 0.28 0.93 0.35
Nominative:Who 0.72 0.27 2.61 0.009 **
  1. Significance thresholds: p *** < 0.001 , p ** < 0.001 , p * < 0.001 .

The model confirms that in Twitter clefts use fewer nominative pronouns ( p = 0.015 ) and are more frequently contracted ( p < 0.001 ). An interaction shows that clefts in which nominative pronouns and who co-occur appear less in Twitter than in iWeb ( p = 0.009 ).

4 Results

The results from the analysis in Section 3.2 confirm some of the hypotheses outlined in the introduction and in Section 2.3. The pattern that Cheshire et al. (2013) noted on relative clauses, whereby the complementiser who appeared most frequently with subjects, was replicated in it-clefts as the only association that the syntactic role of the clefted element showed: when an object was clefted, the complementiser that was used in almost three quarters of cases, while a clefted subject appeared significantly more with who as a complementiser (see Figure 6).

While it is still not clear whether the case of the pronoun, and more specifically the nominative case, has a direct bearing on emphasis (as Maier 2014 suggests), an association was found between nominative pronouns and the presence of emphasis markers within the cleft (see Figure 3). This could mean either that two emphatic features are used concomitantly, or that the association is due to other features of the sentence that we are not able to see. Nominative case was moreover associated with uncontracted clefts, which rank high in the formality axis (while contraction has no effect on fuzziness and therefore does not directly influence emphasis).

Our prediction in Section 2.3 that the complementiser who may be associated with the avoidance of contraction, stemming from the fact that this form ranked higher in formality and expressiveness, was confirmed (see Figure 4). This complementiser was likewise associated with nominative pronouns, which, however, cannot be explained as a less fuzzy version of accusative case pronouns. The hypothesis that the presence of emphasis markers could be associated with uncontracted clefts or who was not borne out.

The difference outlined between Twitter and general-purpose internet English shows how social media language is more variable than edited writing. This is in keeping with the “conceptual orality” interpretation of social media language. The sources in the iWeb corpus show very stark tendencies, which may be due to the editorial process its texts undergo: most notably, the avoidance of contraction is almost ubiquitous (93.7%), and it is known to be one of the most prescribed-for traits of written language.

5 Discussion

Our main data on the variability of English it-clefts hails from written texts on the social media platform Twitter, which we compare to general purpose written English web texts. We start from the situation that one of the variants is heavily preferred prescriptively in English writing, as confirmed by the edited web data. Contractions are typically avoided in written English (e.g. Wikipedia contributors 2019: List of English contractions).

Most of the current grammars of English discussing cleft sentences do not focus on the case of the pronoun, or on the distribution of the different form variants of the features we selected (e.g. Aarts 2011; Hilpert 2014; Cummings 2018; Depraetere and Langford 2019). Even though some mention that accusative forms are common in non-structural positions such as clefts (Cambridge Dictionary 2019; Eastwood 1994: p. 62), most grammar advice in schools and online still prescribes nominative case for this construction (cf. Grammar Book 2019; Quirk et al. 1985: p. 338 calls the accusative form “informal”). An exception to this are the Longman Grammar (Biber et al. 1999: p. 336), where both nominative and accusative forms are seen as possible but nominative pronouns are noted to be “presumably felt to be more correct” in formal registers, and the Cambridge Grammar (Huddleston and Pullum 2008: p. 1414ff), which characterises the nominative as “formal or very formal” and the accusative as preferred in colloquial uses. Similarly, Maier (2013) shows that while nominatives dominate in written English corpora for clefts, spoken corpora exhibit many more accusatives.

As for the complementiser, most grammars mention both who or that for human referents and/or subjects, with that used in other cases (Eastwood 1994: p. 62). The Longman Grammar (Biber et al. 1999) notes that in written registers, who is often chosen, while that or the omission of the complementiser are more typical of casual speech.

The prescriptively “correct”, or at least preferable, version of the English it-cleft thus seems to be uncontracted, using a nominative pronoun, and (given that most clefted elements are human subjects), using the complementiser who (though that is also possible, in particular for objects).

Looking at formality and emphasis more in detail (as discussed in Section 2.2Section 2.3), more formal texts generally avoid contractions, and, as noted above, tend to favour the nominative pronoun in the context of cleft. As for the complementiser, it is not immediately clear which one is more formal. However, following the definition of formality in Heylighen and Dewaele (1999), more precise word forms are more formal than general-purpose words, because they avoid semantic fuzziness and context-dependence. Under this view, who is more formal than that when applied to human referents (as in all of our examples), since it is more precise in selecting specifically for humans.

The formal variants thus overlap with the prescriptively preferred variants. And indeed, the iWeb corpus of edited online written English shows the formal/prescriptive version of the it-cleft almost categorically, as shown in Figure 7: each formal feature is chosen in about 90% of the instances. This exemplifies a tendency that writers have, even in online texts, to adhere to formal style standards. The Twitter data is even more interesting in this light, since it shows considerable variation between the formal and informal variants.

As Heylighen and Dewaele (1999) note, expressivity/emphasis is somewhat orthogonal to (in)formality, and higher emphasis is associated with higher specificity but also higher context-dependence. Note that uncontracted clefts are able to receive more stress than contracted ones, and thus can be more emphatic. As argued above, who is more specific than that, thus also more emphatic under the assumed definition. Finally, Maier (2014) claims that nominative pronouns are more emphatic than accusative ones. This does not follow in Heylighen and Dewaele (1999)’s framework, as nominative pronouns are not more semantically specific or context-dependent than accusative ones. Here, we show that the case of the clefted pronoun in Twitter is not used to mark the syntactic role of the referent, which may free up the case feature to mark something else.

Though written, Twitter data tends towards a very informal style by default, exhibiting many features typical of conversational spoken language, and many informal variants (Koch and Oesterreicher 1985; Storrer 2013; Eisenstein 2013b; Hu et al. 2013). In Twitter, using formal style features constitutes a marked case that, by being somewhat unusual, increases the general emphasis on the utterance. Taken together, we believe that the dimensions of (in)formality and emphasis at least in part explain the “clustered” distribution of cleft variants seen in Figure 2. First, we observe that the lack of enforcement of prescriptive standards leads to a much higher variability in this medium than other written (web) text. Second, the formal variant that dominates in edited text (Uncontr-NOM-who) is still highly present in the Twitter data, but it is joined equally by two other variants. Of these, one reflects informal usage, which is default on Twitter (Contr-ACC-that). Further, the more specific complementiser who is also used often in informal Twitter clefts, increasing the emphasis in these cases (without seeming too formal, since both who and that are considered standard for clefts). Finally, further emphasis may be added by using the nominative pronoun and/or by adding orthographic emphasis markers, which are associated with nominative pronouns. Other combinations are rarer, possibly because of a resulting clash between the underlying utterance properties of (in)formality and emphasis.

In summary, in this paper we studied English it-clefts in written social media texts. We observe considerable variation in the realisation of the clefts with regard to the (non)contraction of the copula, the case of the pronoun, and the complementiser used. This variation is not random – instead we observe several close associations of the studied features, as well as the presence of additional orthographic emphasis markers. We conclude that while general web text is subject to overt standard language conventions, these are less relevant in Twitter and uncover different subtypes of it-clefts in form. We characterise these subtypes in terms of their placement on scales of formality and emphasis. It would be very interesting to see if the variation in form also corresponds to further functional distinctions among these it-clefts (for example, as far as their information structure or the relative salience of clefted referents in subsequent discourse). We must leave these questions for future research.

Corresponding author: Luca Bevacqua, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK, E-mail:

Award Identifier / Grant number: 317633480 - SFB1287, Project A03


The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their detailed comments. We are grateful to our project collaborators Berfin Aktaş, Yulia Clausen, and Manfred Stede, as well as Heike Pichler and Joseph DeVeaugh-Geiss for discussions about this work. This research was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), Project ID 317633480 – SFB 1287, Project A03/MGK.

Appendix I Twitter search queries

This appendix lists the queries used to mine Twitter for cleft sentences through TAGS (Hawksey 2016):

  1. Lines 1–8 search for accusative pronouns, 9–16 for nominative pronouns;

  2. Lines 1–4 and 9–12 search for that, 5–8 and 13–16 for who;

  3. Lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 13 and 14 search for uncontracted clefts, the others for contracted clefts;

  4. Odd lines search for feminine pronouns, even lines for masculine pronouns.

  5. %22it%20is%20her%20that%22 AND -filter:retweets

  6. %22it%20is%20him%20that%22 AND -filter:retweets

  7. %22it%27s%20her%20that%22 AND -filter:retweets

  8. %22it%27s%20him%20that%22 AND -filter:retweets

  9. %22it%20is%20her%20who%22 AND -filter:retweets

  10. %22it%20is%20him%20who%22 AND -filter:retweets

  11. %22it%27s%20her%20who%22 AND -filter:retweets

  12. %22it%27s%20him%20who%22 AND -filter:retweets

  13. %22it%20is%20she%20that%22 AND -filter:retweets

  14. %22it%20is%20he%20that%22 AND -filter:retweets

  15. %22it%27s%20she%20that%22 AND -filter:retweets

  16. %22it%27s%20he%20that%22 AND -filter:retweets

  17. %22it%20is%20she%20who%22 AND -filter:retweets

  18. %22it%20is%20he%20who%22 AND -filter:retweets

  19. %22it%27s%20she%20who%22 AND -filter:retweets

  20. %22it%27s%20he%20who%22 AND -filter:retweets

Appendix II Raw data numbers

Table 4:

Raw numbers of the feature variants in the two Twitter data collections.

First round of data collection
 Nominative 311
 Accusative 487
 Contracted 485
 Uncontracted 313
 That 286
 Who 512
Referents no.
 One 650
 Two 148
  Clefted Subj 112
  Clefted Obj 36
Emphasis markers
 No Emphasis 685
 Emphasis 113
  Exclamation 55
  Capital pronoun 33
 Capital pro. + ! 3
  Capital initial 4
  Capital cleft 2
  Asterisks 4
  Nonstandard comma 6
  Nonst. comma + ! 1
  Other 5
Total number of clefts 798

Second round of data collection

 Nominative 242
 Accusative 374
 Contracted 405
 Uncontracted 211
 That 256
 Who 360
Total number of clefts 616


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Published Online: 2020-12-14

© 2020 Luca Bevacqua and Tatjana Scheffler, published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

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