Improve your English grammar with the BBC. How do you emphasise something you want to say in English? Maybe somebody didn’t understand what you said, and you want to explain it to them clearly. Watch this free online English lesson to find out how.

Hi, Sian here for BBC Learning English. And today we’re going to look at ways of giving emphasis.

OK, so one way of giving emphasis is by using a cleft sentence. What’s that? Well, basically a cleft sentence is a way of cutting a sentence in half so that you can give emphasis to the important or new information. It tells the listener or reader what information they need to pay attention to.

Let’s have an example:

Rob ate my biscuits yesterday.

Ah, so Catherine ate your biscuits yesterday.

It was Rob that ate my biscuits.

I hear Rob ate your lunch.

No, it was my biscuits that Rob ate yesterday.

I can’t believe Rob ate your biscuits this morning.

It was yesterday that Rob ate my biscuits.

OK, so I said the same sentence in three different ways but each time, the emphasis changed. I did this by using an ‘it’ cleft. Let’s have a look in more detail.

So we have it is or it was – so here’s our ‘it’ cleft – followed by the key information we want to emphasise, followed by that and then the rest of the message.

So, let’s look at the examples we had. Here we want to emphasise Rob. So, “It was Rob that ate my biscuits,” not Catherine. Here, because it’s a person, we can also use ‘who’, although ‘that’ is more common.

Now, I want to emphasise that it was biscuits, not lunch. So, “It was my biscuits that Rob ate, not my lunch.” Notice this is plural but we still use ‘was’ not ‘were’ here. And then finally, I want to emphasise that it was yesterday. So, “It was yesterday that Rob ate my biscuits,” not today.

Let’s look at a few more examples. If we want to talk about the present, we use it is and the verb in the present. So, “It is me that does all the work.”

We can also put this structure into the question form. So, “Was it you that told him?”

And we can make it negative. “It wasn’t me that told him.” This last sentence, we could also use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’, but this is much more formal. So, “It wasn’t I who told him.”

So, that was your introduction to the ‘it’ cleft. Now, these structures are really useful in writing because when we’re writing, we can’t stress or give intonation, so it helps to emphasise key information. They’re also common when we’re speaking. But you have to remember to stress the key information.

So, for example, “It was his smile that I first noticed.” Or, “It was only a year ago that we met.”

Now, it’s practice that you really need. So, go to our website – – for more information and to practise these structures. Goodbye!

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