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There is something that I don't -gramatically- know in this sentence. The sentence is:

In that context we can better see why it was that ritual gave birth to the windmill.

Especially

why it was that ritual gave birth

What would be if I changed this sentence to

In that context we can better see why that ritual gave birth to the windmill.

What is the difference between these two sentences?

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  • In the context of that sentence, are they talking about a specific ritual -- "...*that* specific ritual..." or about the practice of ritual in general?
    – gotube
    Jan 2 at 18:53

2 Answers 2

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When we want to ask the reason for something, we can simply ask Why are you leaving? for example.

But we can also ask the more elaborate Why is it that you are leaving?

On the face of it there is no difference: both are asking for an reason. But the form with is it that is more specifically asking for an explanation, and often suggests that we have some emotion attached to it: annoyance, or surprise, or disbelief.

So your example is the embedded form of Why is it that ritual gave birth to the windmill? again asking for an explanation rather than any other kind of expression of a reason.

We can see why it is that ritual gave birth to the windmill therefore means something like We can grasp an explanation of how it happened that ritual gave birth to the windmill. This is a bit more specific than we can see why ritual gave birth to the windmill, though the difference is slight.

I think Peter Jennings is right that there is also an ambiguity in whether that is demonstrative ("that (particular) ritual") or a subordinator; but actually this is not relevant for your question.

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  • In other words, if I remove "was" from the sentence, the meaning will not change, but the sentence will not be more detailed. Right?
    – user123960
    Jan 2 at 16:51
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    You can't just remove was: you can remove it was that (or it was if that is demonstrative). If you do so, then it is less clear that it is talking about an explanation.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 2 at 18:20
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In the second sentence it is clear that you are discussing a particular ritual, "that ritual" as opposed to any other ritual.

The first sentence is ambiguous. It can be interpreted the same way by slightly stressing "that".

... why it was that [particular] ritual ...

or, by removing the stress on "that" it can mean some ritual or group of rituals

In that context we can better see why it was that [performing some] ritual gave birth to the windmill

It depends upon whether you associate the word "that" with "ritual" or with the phrase "it was that"

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    While you're rght that that can be ambiguous between demonstrative and subordinator, I don't think that was the point of the question, which was about the insertion or deletion of it was.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 2 at 13:11
  • @ColinFine I interpreted the question to mean what was the practical difference in meaning due to the insertion or deletion of "it was". I wonder if the OP would like to comment? Jan 2 at 13:29
  • Infact I don't understand this sentence no way. "why it was that..." looks really weird to me. Maybe I just can't associate the "was" and "that sth gave birth". In terms of meaning, it is possible by reading the words. But grammatically or syntactically it seems weird to me as an ELL.
    – user123960
    Jan 2 at 14:19
  • It might be clearer if we changed the sentence so that that couldn't possibly be associated with the next word: "Now I see why it was that you left so quickly."
    – stangdon
    Jan 2 at 16:25

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