Skip to main content Accessibility help

The question of form in the forming of questions: The meaning and use of clefted wh-interrogatives in Swedish



This paper addresses the meaning and use of clefted wh-interrogatives (I-clefts) in Swedish. It is shown that I-clefts always relate immediately to the topic under discussion and serve to clarify a matter in relation to this topic. They are never used in out-of-the-blue contexts. I argue that I-clefts have the same information structure as typically assumed for declarative clefts: the clefted clause expresses an existential presupposition and the cleft phrase is the identificational focus of the utterance. I further argue that the implication of existence commonly associated with canonical argument questions is weaker (a conversational implicature) than the existential presupposition associated with clefts. The results from an extensive corpus survey show that argument I-clefts (who, what) constitute no less than 98% of the total number of I-clefts in my material. This frequency is linked to the presuppositional status of the cleft construction: in contexts where the denoted event is presupposed as part of the common ground, the clefted variety is the more effective choice, due to its clear partitioning of focus and ground. The ‘cost’ of using a more complex syntactic structure (the cleft) is thus counterbalanced by the benefit of being able to pose a question adjusted to the contextual requirements. As non-argument questions are typically presuppositional irrespective of syntactic form, the gain of using a cleft is less obvious – hence their infrequency in the material.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      The question of form in the forming of questions: The meaning and use of clefted wh-interrogatives in Swedish
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      The question of form in the forming of questions: The meaning and use of clefted wh-interrogatives in Swedish
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      The question of form in the forming of questions: The meaning and use of clefted wh-interrogatives in Swedish
      Available formats


This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Corresponding author

Author’s address: Stockholm University, Universitetsvägen 10D, 106 91 Stockholm,


Hide All

Parts of this study have been presented at research seminars at Stockholm University, Gothenburg University and Uppsala University. I would like to thank the audiences for constructive suggestions and comments. I would especially like to thank three anonymous reviewers for thorough and to-the-point criticism, all of which have greatly benefited this article. Needless to say, all remaining errors and shortcomings are my own.



Hide All
Atlas, Jay & Levinson, Stephen C.. 1981. It-clefts, informativeness, and logical form. In Cole, P. (ed.), Radical pragmatics, 162. New York: Academic Press.
Beaver, David. 1992. The kinematics of presupposition. In Dekker, P. & Stockhof, M. (eds.), Proceedings of the Eighth Amsterdam Colloquium, 1736. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, ILLC.
Beaver, David & Geurts, Bart. 2014. Presupposition. In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University; winter 2016 edn.
Biber, Douglas & Conrad, Susan. 2009. Register, genre, and style. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Borin, Lars, Forsberg, Markus & Roxendal, Johan. 2012. Korp – the corpus infrastructure of Språkbanken. Proceedings of LREC 2012, 474478. Istanbul: ELRA.
Brandtler, Johan. 2012. The evaluability hypothesis. The syntax, semantics and pragmatics of polarity item licensing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Chomsky, Noam. 1977. On wh-movement. In Culicover, Peter W., Wasow, Thomas & Akmajian, Adrian (eds.), Formal syntax, 71132. New York: Academic Press.
Clech-Darbon, Anne, Rebuschi, Georges & Rialland, Annie. 1999. Are there cleft sentences in French? In Rebuschi, Georges & Tuller, L. (eds.), The grammar of focus, 83118. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Comorovski, Ileana. 1996. Interrogative phrases and the syntax-semantics interface. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Delahunty, Gerald. 1981. Topics in the syntax and semantics of English cleft sentences. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Irvine.
Delahunty, Gerald. 1984. The analysis of English cleft sentences. Linguistic Analysis 13, 33113.
Delin, Judy. 1995. Presupposition and shared knowledge in it-clefts. Language & Cognitive Processes 10.2, 97120.
Delin, Judy L.1989. Cleft constructions in discourse. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.
den Dikken, Marcel. 2013. Predication and specification in the syntax of cleft sentences. In Hartmann & Veenstra(eds.), 3570.
Dryer, Matthew S. 1996. Focus, pragmatic presupposition, and activated propositions. Journal of Pragmatics 26, 475523.
Engdahl, Elisabet. 2006. Information packaging in questions. In Bonami, Olivier & Cabredo Hofherr, Patricia (eds.), Empirical issues in syntax and semantics, vol. 6, 93111. Paris: Colloque de Syntaxe et Sémantique à Paris.
Faarlund, Jan Terje, Lie, Svein & Vannebo, Kjell Ivar. 1997. Norsk referansegrammatikk. Oslo: Universitetsförlaget.
Frascarelli, Mara & Ramaglia, Francesca. 2013. (pseudo)clefts at the syntax-prosody-discourse interface. In Hartmann & Veenstra (eds.), 97138.
Groenendijk, J. & Stokhof, M.. 1982. Semantic analysis of wh-complements. Linguistics and Philosophy 5, 175233.
Groenendijk, J. & Stokhof, M.. 1984. Studies on the semantics of questions and the pragmatics of answers. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam.
Guerzoni, Elena. 2003. Why even ask? On the pragmatics of questions and the semantics of answers. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT, Cambridge, MA.
Gundel, Jeanette K. 2002. It-clefts in English and Norwegian. In Hasselgård, Hilde, Behrens, Bergljot, Fabricius-Hansen, Cathrine & Johansson, Stig (eds.), Information structure in a cross-linguistic perspective, 175196. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Haegeman, Liliane, Meinunger, André & Vercauteren, Aleksandra. 2014. Syntax and semantics of It-clefts. A tree-adjoining grammar analysis. Journal of Linguistics 50.2, 269296.
Haida, Andreas. 2008. The indefiniteness and focusing of question words. In Haida, Andreas, Friedman, T. & Ito, S. (eds.), SALT XVIII, 376392. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.
Halvorsen, P-K.1978. The syntax and semantics of cleft sentences. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin.
Hamblin, C. L. 1973. Questions in Montague grammar. Foundations of Langauge 10, 4253.
Han, Chung-hye. 2002. Interpreting interrogatives as rhetorical questions. Lingua 112, 201229.
Han, Chung-hye & Romero, Maribel. 2004. On negative yes/no questions. Linguistics & Philosophy 27, 609658.
Hansen, Erik & Heltoft, Lars. 2011. Grammatik over det danske sprog. Copenhagen: Det danske sprog- och litteraturselskab.
Hartmann, Katharina & Veenstra, Tonjes (eds.). 2013. Cleft structures. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Hedberg, Nancy. 1990. Discourse pragmatics and cleft sentences in English. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota.
Hedberg, Nancy. 2000. The referential status of clefts. Language 76, 891920.
Hedberg, Nancy & Fadden, Lorna. 2007. The information structure of It-clefts, Wh-clefts and reverse Wh-clefts in English. In Hedberg, Nancy & Zacharski, Ron (eds.), The grammar-pragmatics interface: Essays in honor of Jeanette K. Gundel, 4976. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Heim, Irene. 1983. On the projection problem for presuppositions. In Barlow, M., Flickinger, D. & Westcoat, M. (eds.), Second Annual West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, 114126. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.
Higginbotham, James & May, Robert. 1980. Questions, quantifiers, and crossing. The Linguistic Review.1, 4180.
Huber, Stefan. 2002. Es-clefts unddet-clefts. Zur Syntax, Semantik und Informationsstruktur von Spaltsätzen im Deutschen und im Schwedischen. Ph.D. dissertation, Lund University, Lund.
Jackendoff, Ray S. 1972. Semantic interpretation in generative grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jespersen, Otto. 1927. A modern English grammar on historical principles, vol. Part III. Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung.
Johansson, Mats. 2001. It and wh clefts in English and Swedish. Linguistics 39.3, 547582.
Johansson, Mats. 2002. Clefts in English and Swedish: A contrastive study of IT-clefts and WH-clefts in original texts and translations. Ph.D. dissertation, Lund University, Lund.
Karttunen, Lauri. 1977. Syntax and semantics of questions. Linguistics & Philosophy 1.1, 344.
Katz, J. J. & Postal, P. M.. 1964. An integrated theory of linguistic descriptions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kenesei, Istvan. 1986. On the logic of word order in Hungarian. In Abraham, A. & de Mey, S. (eds.), Topic, focus and configurationality, 143159. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Kennan, Edward L. & Hull, Robert D.. 1973. The logical presuppositions of questions and answers. In Petöfi, J. S. & Franck, D. (eds.), Präsuppositionen in Philosophie und Linguistik, 441466. Frankfurt am Main: GFR: Athenäum.
Krifka, Manfred. 1995. The semantics and pragmatics of polarity items. Linguistic Analysis 25.3-4, 209257.
Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information Structure and Sentence Form. Topic, focus, and the mental representations of discourse referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lambrecht, Knud. 2001. A framework for the analysis of cleft construction. Linguistics 39, 463516.
Levinson, Stephen. 2012. Interrogative intimations: On a possible social economics of interrogatives. In de Ruiter, Jan (ed.), Questions: Formal, functional and interactional perspectives, 1132. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, David. 1979. Scorekeeping in a language game. Journal of Philosophical Logic 8, 339359.
Lie, Svein. 1978. Cleft wh-questions in Norwegian and their presuppositions. In Gregersen, Kirsten, Basbøll, Hans & Mey, Jacob (eds.), The Fourth Scandinavian Conference of Linguistics, 6277. Odense: Odense University Press.
Mayr, Clemens. 2013. Downward monotonicity in questions. In Chemla, Emmanuel, Homer, Vincent & Winterstein, Gregoire (eds.), Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 17, 345362. Paris: ENS.
Meinunger, André. 1998. A monoclausal structure for (pseudo-)cleft sentences. In Tamanji, N. & Kusumoto, Kiyomi (eds.), Proceedings of NELS 28, 283398. Amherst, MA: GLSA.
Molnár, Valéria. 2016. Questions in focus – focus in questions. Presentation at the 22nd Germanic Linguistics Annual Conference, University of Iceland, May 21, 2016.
Nicolae, Andreea. 2015. Questions with NPIs. Natural Language Semantics 23, 2176.
Percus, O. 1997. Prying open the cleft. In Kusumoto, K. (ed.), Proceedings of NELS 22, 337351. Amherst, MA: GLSA.
Postal, Paul M. 1971. Cross-Over Phenomena. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.
Prince, Ellen F. 1978. A comparison of wh-clefts and it-clefts in discourse. Language 54.4, 883906.
Progovac, Ljiljana. 1994. Negative and positive polarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reeve, Matthew. 2000. Clefts. Ph.D. dissertation, University College London, London.
Reeve, Matthew. 2011. The syntactic structure of English clefts. Lingua 121, 142171.
Reeve, Matthew. 2013. The cleft pronoun and cleft clause in English. In Hartmann & Veenstra(eds.), 165186.
van Rooy, Robert. 2003. Negative polarity items in questions: Strength as relevance. Journal of Semantics 20.3, 239273.
Siemund, Peter. 2012. Interrogative clauses in English and the social economics of questions. Journal of Pragmatics 119, 1532.
Svenonius, Peter. 1998. Clefts in Scandinavian. ZAS Papers in Linguistics 10, 163190.
Søfteland, Åshild. 2014. Utbrytingskonstruksjonen i norsk spontantale. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oslo, Oslo.
Tailleur, Sandrine. 2013. The French wh interrogative system:est-ce que, clefting? Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, Toronto.
Teleman, Ulf, Hellberg, Staffan & Andersson, Erik. 1999. Svenska Akademiens grammatik. Stockholm: Norstedts Ordbok.
Tomioka, S. 2009. Why questions, presuppositions, and intervention effects. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 18, 253271.
Vercauteren, Aleksandra. 2016. A conspiracy theory for clefts: The syntax and interpretation of cleft constructions. Ph.D. dissertation, Ghent University, Gent.
É. Kiss, Katalin. 1998. Identificational focus versus informational focus. Language 74, 245273.
É. Kiss, Katalin. 1999. The English cleft construction as a focus phrase. In Mereu, L. (ed.), Boundaries of morphology and syntax, 217229. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed