Grammaticalization and the it-cleft construction

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This paper reexamines the development of the it-cleft construction from the perspective of grammaticalization theory. In a previous study, Ball (1991, 1994) finds that the it-cleft was initially restricted to NP foci, with the relative clause expressing presupposed information that is already known to the hearer/reader. However, it is well known that the modern day it-cleft also permits a range of non-NP foci and that the relative clause is no longer restricted to presenting information that is necessarily known to the intended audience. Using data from the Penn Parsed Corpora of Historical English, I argue that synchronic variation in the it-cleft can be understood as a consequence of gradual constructional emergence. Non-NP focus it-clefts are shown to originate by extension from the existing NP focus it-cleft, resulting in a more schematic it-cleft construction. In line with Lambrecht’s (1994) theorizing, I provide evidence that the development of the ‘informative-presupposition’ (IP) it-cleft involves grammaticalization, whereby a sense of presupposition gradually becomes associated with the construction as a whole and is no longer predictable from the meaning of its parts. Discussing the implications for the present day it-cleft, this paper provides insight into how the gradual grammaticalization of constructions, and mismatch in particular, intersects with synchronic gradience (as understood by Croft 2007).


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