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"His writing is so confusing that it’s difficult to make out what it is he is trying to express."

How to understand "it is" in "what it is he is trying to express"? Does "he is trying to express" a relative clause to modify "it"?

Thank you in advance!

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What is the source of that sentence? Any link? – Maulik V Aug 23 '14 at 12:27

... what it is he is trying to express.

Syntactically this is a moderately complicated clause. Among its features are

  1. an omitted relative pronoun (relativizer)
    The full form of the final clause would be

    that he is trying to express.

    It is very common to omit a relativizer which acts as the object of the verb, as happens here

    that1 he is trying to express _1.

    Keep an eye on that subscript 1 after the deleted that and the ‘trace’ (notated with an underscore, _) which marks the ‘canonical’ position of the constituent which it replaces. The subscript is an ‘index’ which signifies that the two terms have the same referent. He is trying to express ‘something’—that ‘something’ is referred to by that.

    This relative clause is embedded in

  2. an it cleft
    This is an ‘information packaging’ construction which focuses one constituent of a canonical clause by making it the complement of it BE and subordinating what is left as a relative clause.

    John loves Mary. If we want to focus Mary we make it the object of It is and relativize John loves ...
    It is Mary whom John loves.

    Experts disagree about the precise status of It here. Some regard it as an expletive (‘dummy’) pronoun which has no actual referent; others regard it as an ordinary pronoun whose referent is the complement, thus:

    It1 is Mary1 whom John loves.

    In any case, that’s where your it is comes from:

    it1 is _1 that1 he is trying to express _1.

    “But wait!” I hear you protest. “What is the complement of is? What’s that trace there where the complement ought to be?” ... The complement has been replaced by the operation of a third feature—

  3. a free relative clause
    This is a construction which permits us to treat a ‘specified’but ‘indefinite’ constituent of a clause as a syntactic NP. We replace the constituent with an interrogative/relative wh- word and move that to the head of the clause:

    what1 it is _1 ...

    This construction stands as the direct object of the preposition verb (phrasal verb) make out:

    ... to make out what1 it1 is _1 that1 he is trying to express _1.

In the end, all the references converge on the single term what.

If you’ve followed all this you may now be wondering what purpose the it cleft serves. Wouldn’t it be simpler to write this?

to make out what he is trying to express.

The answer, I think, is that the it cleft is introduced for rhetorical purposes. The simplified version asks, in effect, “What is he trying to express?” The version with the it cleft, particularly with the relativizer omitted, throws the prosodic emphasis onto is, which produces a stronger sense of puzzlement—and perhaps exasperation, too.

difficult to make out what it is ...

A point that MaulikV has acutely brought up even as I was writing this.

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What an excellent answer! A bit more (on "It's raining", etc.) and we'd have the "canonical it" answer here! I'm not sure it's "acute" to say the "it cleft" is superfluous. As you indicate yourself, it introduces nuances not intrinsically present in the shorter version. If "superfluous" means not [grammatically] required then okay - but not if it implies semantically useless padding which should never be present. – FumbleFingers Aug 23 '14 at 17:54
@FumbleFingers Exactly: it is 'packaging' which adapts the bare content to some specific context. – StoneyB Aug 23 '14 at 18:30
Or as you might have said, "That's exactly it!". Within which context it doesn't get us much further to point out that "syntactically", that = it and it = that. I hadn't registered the term it-cleft before, but it sure looks useful. – FumbleFingers Aug 23 '14 at 19:15
@FumbleFingers It's also called just cleft - that's what you'll find in McCawley. I always say it-cleft because I can never remember whether it is this or the wh-cleft which is called a pseudo-cleft. – StoneyB Aug 23 '14 at 19:34
Wow! Wikipedia lists seven distinct types of "cleft" construction, among which is the charmingly-named Reversed wh-cleft/Inverted pseudo-cleft, for which they offer A Fiat is what he wanted to buy as an example. Just give me money. That's what I want (as Lennon-McCartney would have it! :) – FumbleFingers Aug 23 '14 at 19:39

[His writing is so confusing] [that] [it is difficult to make out what it is] [he is trying to express]

I think the words it and is are superfluous in this sentence. Without them too, the sentence makes sense and conveys the message.

"His writing is so confusing that it’s difficult to make out what it is he is trying to express."

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