The Function and Interpretation of Reverse Wh-Clefts in Spoken Discourse

Jon Oberlander, Judy Delin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We examine the characteristics of the headless reverse wh-cleft, with a view to embedding its description into a model of discourse function. On the basis of 302 examples taken from the London-Lund Corpus of spoken English and on Collins' (1991) analysis of the same data, we discuss the distinctive features of the construction, as well as those it shares with other kinds of cleft. In common with other clefts, the reverse wh-cleft is presuppositional, and has the property of conveying part of its content aspectually as a STATE. In addition, it has commonalities with the IP it-cleft in its information structure, and the ability to allocate novel CASE ROLES to existing discourse referents. Its distinctive features include the summative or ending function previously observed; we further suggest that the construction is more likely to play a metalinguistic or transaction management role than it is to move a discourse forward. In addition, its referential behavior differs from that of the it-cleft in a manner likely to affect cognitive processing of its content. We present a formal model, combining the general features of cleft constructions with the distinctive features of reverse wh-clefts in spoken discourse.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)185-227
Number of pages43
JournalLanguage and Speech
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - 1996


  • aspect
  • cleft constructions
  • discourse
  • information structure
  • Pragmatics

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