What Is Parsing? Definition and Examples in English Grammar

An English grammar test

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Parsing is a grammatical exercise that involves breaking down a text into its component parts of speech with an explanation of the form, function, and syntactic relationship of each part so that the text can be understood. The term "parsing" comes from the Latin pars for "part (of speech)."

In contemporary linguistics, parsing usually refers to the computer-aided syntactic analysis of language. Computer programs that automatically add parsing tags to a text are called parsers.

Key Takeaways: Parsing

  • Parsing is the process of breaking down a sentence into its elements so that the sentence can be understood.
  • Traditional parsing is done by hand, sometimes using sentence diagrams. Parsing is also involved in more complex forms of analysis such as discourse analysis and psycholinguistics.

Parse Definition

In linguistics, to parse means to break down a sentence into its component parts so that the meaning of the sentence can be understood. Sometimes parsing is done with the help of tools such as sentence diagrams (visual representations of syntactical constructions). When parsing a sentence, the reader takes note of the sentence elements and their parts of speech (whether a word is a noun, verb, adjective, etc.). The reader also notices other elements such as the verb tense (present tense, past tense, future tense, etc.). Once the sentence is broken down, the reader can use their analysis to interpret the meaning of the sentence.

Some linguists draw a distinction between "full parsing" and "skeleton parsing." The former refers to the full analysis of a text, including as detailed a description of its elements as possible. The latter refers to a simpler form of analysis used to grasp a sentence's basic meaning.

Traditional Methods of Parsing

Traditionally, parsing is done by taking a sentence and breaking it down into different parts of speech. The words are placed into distinct grammatical categories, and then the grammatical relationships between the words are identified, allowing the reader to interpret the sentence. For example, take the following sentence:

  • The man opened the door.

To parse this sentence, we first classify each word by its part of speech: the (article), man (noun), opened (verb), the (article), door (noun). The sentence has only one verb (opened); we can then identify the subject and object of that verb. In this case, since the man is performing the action, the subject is man and the object is door. Because the verb is opened—rather than opens or will open—we know that the sentence is in the past tense, meaning the action described has already occurred. This example is a simple one, but it shows how parsing can be used to illuminate the meaning of a text. Traditional methods of parsing may or may not include sentence diagrams. Such visual aids are sometimes helpful when the sentences being analyzed are especially complex.

Discourse Analysis

Unlike simple parsing, discourse analysis refers to a broader field of study concerned with the social and psychological aspects of language. Those who perform discourse analysis are interested in, among other topics, genres of language (those with certain set conventions within different fields) and the relationships between language and social behavior, politics, and memory. In this way, discourse analysis goes far beyond the scope of traditional parsing, which is limited to that individual texts.

Psycholinguistics

Psycholinguistics is a field of study that deals with language and its relationship with psychology and neuroscience. Scientists who work in this field study the ways in which the brain processes language, transforming signs and symbols into meaningful statements. As such, they are primarily interested in the underlying processes that make traditional parsing possible. They are interested, for example, in how different brain structures facilitate language acquisition and comprehension.

Computer-Assisted Parsing

Computational linguistics is a field of study in which scientists have used a rules-based approach to develop computer models of human languages. This work combines computer science with cognitive science, mathematics, philosophy, and artificial intelligence. With computer-assisted parsing, scientists can use algorithms to perform text analysis. This is especially useful to scientists because, unlike traditional parsing, such tools can be used to quickly analyze large volumes of text, revealing patterns and other information that could not be easily obtained otherwise. In the emerging field of digital humanities, for example, computer-assisted parsing has been used to analyze the works of Shakespeare; in 2016, literary historians concluded from a computer analysis of the play that Christopher Marlowe was the co-author of Shakespeare's "Henry VI."

One of the challenges of computer-assisted parsing is that computer models of language are rule-based, meaning scientists must tell algorithms how to interpret certain structures and patterns. In actual human language, however, such structures and patterns do not always share the same meanings, and linguists must analyze individual examples to determine the principles that govern them.

Sources

  • Dowty, David R., et al. "Natural Language Parsing: Psychological, Computational and Theoretical Perspectives." Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Halley, Ned. "The Wordsworth Dictionary of Modern English: Grammar, Syntax and Style for the 21st Century." Wordsworth Editions, 2001.