Writing teachers can be super mean about ‘to be’. It’s a boring, unemotive, indescriptive verb, a total waste of space, right?

But ‘to be’ can be something of an unsung hero for several ways to put emphasis in a sentence.

By adding the ‘it+is/was’ to the beginning of the sentence, they take a massive hit for the rest of the team. They are swallowed/lost to provide emphasis. You have to be a bit proud of them, really.

It is a CLEFT sentence.

‘It + is/was’ moves the focus from the end of the sentence to the ‘unstressed valley’ at the beginning of the sentence.

By using this approach  you can place the emphasis on any number of parts of the sentence, depending on what you — the writer — consider the most important part of the story.

Here’s a little formula to help you

It + be (+not/ adverb) + emphasised word/phrase + noun clause (that/who/which)

Have a look at this:

Jack drove the car last night.

            It was Jack who drove the car last night.

            It was last night [that] Jack drove the car.

            It was the car [that] Jack drove last night.


You could add a ‘because’ to add reason, purpose or to build narrative:

It was because I was drunk that Jack drove the car.

There are ‘it-clefts’ and there are also cleft clause beginning with ‘what’ (also known as noun clauses!), that can also take the role of the sentence infantryman.

What’ clauses are usually used with verbs like ‘need’, ‘want’, ‘like’, ‘hate’:

I need a holiday = What I need is a holiday (notice no comma after ‘need’, despite the pause!)

They are wrecking the country = What they are doing is wrecking the country. (Again, no comma!)

So, another formula:

wh-clause + is/was/were+ do/did/doing + emphasised word/phrase

Of course, the wh-cleft clause needs to have both a subject and a verb and the emphasised phrase usually uses an infinitive (to + verb).

Wh-clefts help you place the emphasis in the action of a sentence

What Lily did was [to] buy her mum some flowers.

What we’ll be doing is [to be] partying hard.

What the relatives were doing, nobody knows.

Have a play around in your most recent piece of writing and work out whether you can use cleft sentences to get the emphasis you want.

Coming up next: Using a Connotative Word for Emphasis


Proofreader, copy-writer and copy-editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.