Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

The Syntax and Cognitive Motivation of English It-Clefts

Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

The Syntax and Cognitive Motivation of English It-Clefts

Article excerpt


English it-cleft is a constant topic in linguistic study. Previous work on it-clefts resided in their structural and functional aspects and neglected their cognitive basis. This paper is an attempt to consider the form and function of it-clefts within the framework of Cognitive Linguistics. Most previous studies of it-clefts have paid no attention to the status of "it" and "copular be" which is generally believed to be dummy. Following the tenets of Cognitive Linguistics, every form has its own meaning or function. This paper argues that the function of "it" as a pronoun is relative to the cleft clause, which is modified by the clause. "Copular be" performs the function of identifying in it-clefts. The paper then uses the concepts of Recency Effect, figure-ground and grounding theory to account for the information distribution, cognitive motivation of it-clefts.

Keywords: it-cleft, motivation, focusing, figure-ground, grounding

1. Introduction

It-cleft is generally accepted as a marked syntactic bi-clausal option in English, which expresses a simple semantic proposition in terms of information distribution by placing an element in focal position within the copular matrix clause. The most quoted definition was given by Jespersen (1937/1969, p. 147-8):

A cleaving of a sentence by means of "it is" (often followed by a relative pronoun or connective) serves to single out one particular element of the sentence and very often, by directing attention to it and bringing it , as it were, into focus, to mark a contrast...

It is known that it-cleft is a grammatical device associated with information focus: it enables the user to select (within limits) which element of the sentence will be highlighted. A cleft construction is divided into two main parts: the focus element (or foci) and the background structure which resembles a relative clause. English it-cleft, as Jucker (1996, p. 699) argued, has always been a testing ground for linguistic frameworks: generative in the sixties and early seventies, presuppositional in the seventies and early eighties, functional or discourse analytical in the eighties. And now it imposes an explanatory challenge on Cognitive Linguistics. Most previous work on it-clefts has mainly resided in structured and functional approaches. From a structured perspective, the scholars (Akmajian, 1970; Chomsky, 1970; Gundel, 1977; Higgins, 1979; Delahunty, 1984, etc.) focused on the syntactic structural analysis of it-clefts. Others (Halliday, 1994; Prince, 1978; Quirk et al., 1985; Collins, 1991; Huang & Fawcett, 1996, etc.) adopted a functional perspective by exploring clefts from their thematic structure and information structure. In this paper, we shall first elucidate the form and function of it-clefts within the framework of Cognitive Linguistics and then using the descriptive apparatus of Cognitive Linguistics explore the cognitive motivations of the basic elements in it-clefts.

2. An Account of the Basic Elements in It-Clefts

A construction is generally understood as a form-meaning pairing. To describe a construction fully, one has to specify: (a) the meaning of each component element; (b) how these meanings are integrated to form a composite conception at different levels of organization; (c) how the construction relates to others (its position in intersecting networks of constructions and construction variants (Langacker, 2009, p. 60). From the constructionalist approach, linguistic elements are symbolic units that consist of a specific form paired with a specific meaning. This position implies that each form in a linguistic structure carries a corresponding meaning or meanings. The following part will explore the functions of these basic elements in clefts.

2.1 The Subject "It"

There are two prevailing views to account for "it" in it-clefts in the literature. One regards the pronoun "it" in it-clefts as "empty it" or "dummy it" which is semantically non-referential or semantically null cipher (e. …

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