FCE Challenge #1: Cleft sentence

 In FCE Challenges

Is or Was?

Here’s the Use of English question I posted two days ago.

I think most of you put either ‘is’ or ‘was’ in the gap.

So what’s the correct answer?

BOTH of them are correct (yay!). It is nice when that happens isn’t it?

The strange thing about this incident was that the animal escaped in the middle of the day.

The strange thing about this incident is that the animal escaped in the middle of the day.

This sentence uses a grammar point called cleft sentence.

It is used to emphasise one part of the sentence by making it the subject.

Here are a few websites you can check out to understand how to use cleft sentences.

Cambridge: English Grammar Today

BBC English

Ok, so why are there two possible answers?

Well, it depends what you are trying to say:

  1. This incident happened yesterday but I am still confused. I don’t know how the animal could escape in the middle of the day. ==> IS
  2. This incident happened yesterday and I was confused about this yesterday. Maybe, I now understand how it was possible. ==> WAS

See the difference? It is very subtle, isn’t it?

One other question that a very smart student asked me is:

Why did you use ‘male tiger’? I thought all tigers are male and tigress is the feminine noun.

This is such a fantastic question and the answer is also very interesting!

Traditionally, we used masculine and feminine nouns to highlight the gender of the noun.

For example:

Masculine Feminine
tiger tigress
actor actress
hero heroine

Now, languages have to change when attitudes change. People now think that is offensive (rude) to use some of these words because they can be sexist.

So now, the trend in the English language is to stop using words that tell you the gender specifically.

A very good example of this is the word ‘air hostess’. In the last decade, we have switched to the word, ‘flight attendant’ which is gender-neutral.

I really recommend using gender-neutral terms when possible. There are of course exceptions like ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ but for jobs, I would definitely recommend using a gender-neutral term.

Here is another fantastic post about using gender-neutral words in English and how not to be rude(!) in English.

Oxford English Dictionary

Excellent work guys! Wasn’t this super easy?

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Anu x

FCE Expert

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