Thursday, April 7, 2022
Thursday’s Raw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law—exploring ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.
The “It-Cleft” Sentence: Grammar Choice, Persuasive Effect
The Problem with “It Is”
Modern legal writing doctrine says this: Almost never start a sentence with “it is.” This advice has a good reason: “It is” at the beginning of the sentence often signals a throat-clearing phrase, a phrase that offers little information to readers and delays them in getting to the point of the sentence. Over at his blog, Legible, Wayne Schiess describes a throat-clearing phrase as a “flabby sentence opener” that makes writing weak and less concise: He gives two examples of throat-clearing phrases that start with “it is”: “It is clear that,” and “It is important to point out that.” Both are empty openers.
What’s the problem with “it is” in the context of throat-clearing? First, “it” is a “dummy” pronoun—a pronoun that points to no particular noun. And “is” is a being verb that evokes little, if any, imagery or action. So, more or less, “it is,” in the context of a throat-clearing sentence opener, says “nothing exists.” Good job, legal writer. What a great way to start a sentence for a busy legal reader who craves vivid detail, precision, and concision.
Because of the characteristics of “it is” in the sentence-starting context, plenty of excellent legal writing instruction directs writers to find these phlegmy phrases and clear them from the informative writing the reader cares about. Typically, I tell my students to use the “find” tool in their word processors to search for “it is,” and when the phrase appears at the beginning of a sentence, revise the sentence to get rid of the extra words. But am I right?
Enter the “It-Cleft” Sentence
Not quite. The “it-cleft” sentence, which starts with “it is” or “it was,” is an exception to the rule. Unlike throat-clearing, an it-cleft sentence can be used to enhance the persuasive effect of legal writing. Because an it-cleft gives a writer another way to place emphasis on the most important idea in a sentence, it can be a useful persuasive writing tool.
The “it-cleft” sentence is not a new idea. Composition experts and linguists know and write about “cleft” sentences. A cleft sentence is easily identified because the sentence’s clauses are “split” and then re-ordered in an unusual way. That is, the usual is upended to create a new point of emphasis. Typically, that point of emphasis is at the beginning of the sentence. After a sentence is cleft, the sentence will start with “it” and followed by a being verb (i.e., is, are, was, were). (Side note: There are other options for starting a cleft sentence including “what” and “all.”)
It-Cleft Examples: Before and After
Here are two examples, adapted from Supreme Court opinions:
Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006).
- Non-cleft: The First Amendment secures public employees’ rights to speak as citizens addressing matters of public concern.
- It-cleft (emphasizing citizens speaking): It is the right as citizens to speak on matters of public concern that the First Amendment secures for public employees.
Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).
- Non-cleft: The hostility surfaced at the Commission’s formal, public hearings.
- It-cleft (emphasizing location): It was at the Commission’s formal, public hearings that the hostility surfaced.
The examples show that the “it-cleft” gives writers an option for changing the point of emphasis in a sentence. In the first example, the emphasis is on the First Amendment law and what it says. But in the cleft sentence, the emphasis changes to people—speaking citizens and public employees. By moving the “speaking citizen” to the beginning of the sentence and then “pointing” at that language with “it is,” the reader’s attention is drawn away from a general statement of First Amendment law to a specific assertion about public employee citizen rights. Although there’s no real difference between the content of the two sentences, the take-away of the sentence noticeably changes.
The mechanics and effect in the second example are similar. In the non-cleft sentence, the emphasis is on the action--“hostility.” But in the cleft sentence, the emphasis is on the location of the hostility—the “hearings.” We might imagine that Justice Kennedy, who wrote the Masterpiece Cakeshop opinion, could have profitably included the cleft sentence to emphasize his point. In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Kennedy wrote that a state civil rights commission had violated the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment by being openly hostile to the religion of a party before it. He said that hostile comments caused the Court to “doubt on the fairness and impartiality” of the commission’s adjudicative hearings. Unlike in other cases where government representatives had made discriminatory remarks, the commissioners’ comments in Masterpiece were made in the adjudicative hearings that were both public and on the record.
Kennedy might have used the it-cleft technique to further emphasize that the location of the hostility—at the public, on-the-record, adjudicative hearings—mattered to his reasoning. A cleft sentence would bring more attention to the location’s importance.
Three Suggestions for Using It-Cleft in Persuasive Writing
Here are three suggestions for using it-cleft sentences.
- Use an it-cleft to double-down on an important contrast. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop example, we might imagine a paragraph that used the it-cleft sentence in a sentence like this:
The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of the party showed impermissible hostility toward the party’s sincere religious beliefs. That hostility did not just occur in the private comments of the Commissioners. Instead, it was at the Commission’s formal, public hearings that the hostility surfaced.
In this example, the it-cleft adds extra emphasis to the contrast between the ideas in the last two sentences. The writer first tells the reader where the comments did not occur; then, for emphasis, the writer focuses the reader on the location of the comments. While the writer could have written, “Instead, the hostility surfaced at the Commission’s formal public meetings,” the writer took advantage of the it-cleft to add extra emphasis to the contrast.
- If you can, simplify and shorten an it-cleft. An it-cleft is already a complex grammatical construction, so simplifying and shortening an it-cleft sentence can make the sentence more accessible. Take for example, the Garcetti sentence: It is the right as citizens to speak on matters of public concern that the First Amendment secures for public employees. The sentence effectively emphasizes the right to speak, but the sentence is a little clunky. How about this?
It is the right as citizens to speak on matters of public concern that the First Amendment secures.
The sentence is not a great deal shorter than the original, but I like it better. Admittedly, the language about the “public employees” is gone from the sentence. But what if the context, rather than the sentence itself, supplied the necessary meaning? Maybe that context would look something like this:
Public employees are more than government workers; they are citizens who are concerned with the issues facing their communities. It is their right as citizens to speak on matters of public concern that the First Amendment secures.
- Like other persuasive writing devices, use it-cleft sentences be used sparingly. It is the unique sentence construction that produces the persuasive effect. (See what I did there? 😊) But the sentence can’t benefit from its novelty if the construction is over-used.