Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Answers Must Be in the Form of a Cleft

Posted by Neal on March 30, 2015

Here’s a draft that’s been sitting in the blogpile since September 2007. School had just begun, and Doug and Adam were beginning third grade and first grade. I wrote at the time…

Now that school has resumed, at the end of every week, Doug and Adam are required to take their schoolwork that’s been sent home during the week, and put it in their respective boxes under their beds. So far, though, they haven’t been able to do it because the boxes have been full of all their schoolwork from last year. So last weekend I finally emptied the boxes, and as I was sorting through the papers, I came across one of Doug’s history worksheets from the unit on the Constitution.

One of the questions was:

Where does the Constitution guarantee freedom of speech?

Doug’s answer:

Where the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech is in the First Amendment.

I remember when Doug first brought this paper home. Hey, nice pseudo-cleft, I’d thought when I read it. A pseudo-cleft is a sentence of form:

noninverted wh-question + be + answer to wh-question

I’m not sure how it got the name “pseudo-“cleft. There are various kinds of clefts; I think the “real” cleft that the pseudo-cleft was being compared to when it was named was the it-cleft: It’s in the First Amendment that…. Other examples of pseudo-clefts would be:

Where he keeps it is under the bed.
Who really got upset was Sam.

I’d thought it was interesting that Doug would have used such intricate syntax to express the thought, but I hadn’t looked at the rest of the paper.

That was as much as I wrote back in 2007. I was probably waiting to copy some other sentences off the homework, but it’s seven years gone now. But I remember that as I looked closer at the homework, and read question after question and pseudo-cleft after pseudo-cleft in response, I realized that Doug had misunderstood his second-grade teacher’s instructions. In order to get the kids to write their answers in complete sentences, she would always tell them, “Restate the question.”
Of course, questions are sentences, too.
Doug would have answered this question about Jackie Robinson by saying

How Jackie Robinson demonstrated the trait of perseverance was by …

Like saying “Rhyming words sound the same,” telling kids to “restate the question” is a good example of giving a rule in rather vague terms and figuring that they’ll will click on to the right idea and you won’t have to go into the troublesome details. But in Doug’s case, he was told to use the same words in the question in his answer, so he did!

2 Responses to “Answers Must Be in the Form of a Cleft”

  1. Does anyone else think that the injunction to restate the question is a terrible rule? I remember being taught the same thing, and I always chafed at it. If someone asks you, “Where does the Constitution guarantee freedom of speech?” the natural answer will be “In the first amendment.” Answering “The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech in the First Amendment” outside of a classroom setting would get you weird looks. It repeats back to the person who asked the question a lot of information that they already supplied. All they really want to know is the piece of information signalled by the interrogative adverb where.

    Maybe in a classroom setting it’s important to show that you understood the question, but it’s always struck me as a terrible way to write.

    • Neal said

      In conversation, fragments are fine. But I think writing in complete sentences is good practice for good writing. Furthermore, it’s easy for kids (and college students) to throw possibly relevant keywords onto the page and count on you to “know what they meant”. Sometimes they really do know the answer, but sometimes they don’t.

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