Definition and Examples of Parsing in English Grammar

A historical image of an early 20th-century classroom
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The term "parsing" comes from the Latin for "part (of speech)." Parsing is a traditional 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.

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.

Examples and Observations

  • "[Parsing is the] lost art of identifying all the components of a text, and once one of the fundamental exercises that tested and informed pupils in English. To parse a phrase such as 'man bites dog' involves noting that the singular noun 'man' is the subject of the sentence, the verb 'bites' is the third person singular of the present tense of the verb to bite, and the singular noun 'dog' is the object of the sentence."
    (Ned Halley, Dictionary of Modern English Grammar. Wordsworth, 2005)

As a Means of Teaching Grammar

  • "Put simply, parsing requires the student to break down a sentence into its component words, classifying each in terms of its part of speech, as well as its tense, number and function in the sentence.
    "Let’s say a teacher assigns a student the sentence 'Virtue secures happiness'—a likely specimen in 1847. The youth stands up, spouts something like, 'Virtue is a singular noun and the subject of the sentence; secures is a regular verb, indicative mode, active voice, present tense, third person singular; happiness is a singular noun, object of the sentence,' and sits back down with a sigh of relief.
    "Parsing was almost insufferably tedious. It was also very difficult. And both these deficiencies were intensified by the way grammar was taught. Typically, students were first made to memorize definitions and rules, and only when they could recite them accurately by rote were they expected to apply them to sentences."
    (Kitty Burns Florey, "A Picture of Language." The New York Times, March 26, 2012)

    Clive James on Parsing

    • "In English I shone—fitfully, but sufficiently to keep my morale from collapsing altogether. Our teacher in the early years was "Jazz" Aked... Without resorting to violence, "Jazz" had a way of getting results. Eventually I learned to parse any sentence I was given. I couldn't do it now, but the knowledge is still there somewhere at an unconscious level. It was invaluable training."
      (Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs. Jonathan Cape, 1980)

    The Classical Tradition

    • "Like so many aspects of modern intellectual frameworks, the idea of parsing has its roots in the Classical tradition; (grammatical) analysis is the Greek-derived term, parsing (from pars orationis 'part of speech') the Latin-derived one...
      "Parsing, in the traditional sense, is what happens when a student takes the words of a Latin sentence one by one, assigns each to a part of speech, specifies its grammatical categories, and lists the grammatical relations between words (identifying subject and various types of object for a verb, specifying the word with which some other word agrees, and so on)...
      "[M]uch of the history of parsing until a few decades ago can be understood as the direct consequence of the history of (partial) theories of grammar. Changes in the list of parts of speech, in the list of grammatical categories, or in the list of grammatical relations carry with them changes in what has to be said in parsing a sentence."
      (David R. Dowty, Lauri Karttunen, and Arnold M. Zwicky, Natural Language Parsing: Psychological, Computational, and Theoretical Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 1985)

      Corpus Linguistics

      • "The majority of parsing schemes have in common the fact that they are based on a form of context-free phrase-structure grammar. Within this broad framework of context-free phrase structure grammar, an important distinction which is made is between full parsing and skeleton parsing. Full parsing on the one hand aims to provide as detailed as possible an analysis of the sentence structure. Skeleton parsing on the other hand is, as its name suggests, a less detailed approach which tends to use a less finely distinguished set of syntactic constituent types and ignores, for example, the internal structure of certain constituent types."
        (Tony McEnery and Andrew Wilson, Corpus Linguistics: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Edinburgh University Press, 2001)

      In Computer Languages

      • "The notion of parsing in formal linguistics and formal language theory closely resembles notions developed in several other contexts. Consider, as a first example, the task confronting the designer of a computer 'language.' If an actual machine is to do anything with the strings of symbols that serve as its input, it must group them into particular types of 'words' and 'phrases' that can then serve as signals for specific alterations in the machine's internal states. This is a task quite analogous to the grouping of phonemes or letters into words and phrases, and the assignment of these units to categories, in a linguistic analysis—except that the designer of a computer language is free to stipulate the principles of grouping and interpretation (in particular, the designer is free to legislate that all 'sentences' and 'discourses' are unambiguous in structure and interpretation), whereas the linguist is obliged to discover the principles that happen in the (natural) language in question."
        (Lauri Karttunen and Arnold M. Zwicky, "Introduction." Natural Language Parsing: Psychological, Computational, and Theoretical Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 1985)

        Parsing Sentences in the 19th Century Classroom

        • Mr. S.: These rules and notes comprise the main principles of syntax, which we will now reduce to practice. As I select examples of their violation, parse the erroneous expressions and correct them. This exercise should be continued till you can construct correctly every sentence that you speak or write, and clearly understand what you read.
        • E.: How does parsing make us understand what we read?
        • Mr. S.: Can you parse a sentence that you don't understand?
        • E.: No, sir: none of us can parse a sentence, without ascertaining its meaning and observing its construction.
        • Mr. S.: Then parsing makes us cultivate a habit of finding out the meaning and observing the construction of sentences; and thus, we are prepared for understanding what we read, detecting errors, and constructing sentences correctly.
        • R.: When a sentence is improper, can we find it out by parsing?
        • Mr. S.: Try a few sentences and see. Examine these sentences carefully, and then parse every word that seems to be improper. Take particular notice of the pronouns and the verbs; for no other words are used improperly so often as these two parts of speech. Them that you cannot govern must be expelled.
        • J.: Them is a personal pronoun, in either gender, plural number, third person, and objective case. But them is the subject of the finite verb must be expelled, and should therefore be in the nominative case; thus, They that you cannot govern must be expelled. According to Rule 1.
        • Mr. S.: Them that will not obey you expel.
        • R.: He is a personal pronoun, in the masculine gender, singular number, third person, and nominative case. But he is the object of the verb expel, and should therefore be in the objective case; thus, Him that will not obey you expel.—Rule 2.
        • Mr. S.: Who did you receive that present from?
        • M.: Who is an interrogative pronoun, in either gender, singular number, third person, and nominative case. But who is the object of the preposition from, and should therefore be in the objective case; thus, Whom did you receive that present from?—Rule 2.
        • P.: It is more elegant to say, From whom did you receive that present? according to Note 3 to Rule 2.
        • J.: Can't we correct false syntax just as well without parsing?
        • Mr. S.: A good grammarian can parse a sentence mentally as fast as he can read it, and see as quick as thought if any rule or note is violated. He observes its whole construction at a glance, and incorrect expressions shock him as blemishes in pictures do the skillful artist. If we know exactly how to parse a sentence, we can analyze it mentally, and correct it without parsing. It is not worth while to encumber our exercises with unnecessary repetitions of what we understand well enough already. I will now present you a few models for correcting sentences, and show you how to apply the rules and notes...
          (Jonathan Badgley, An English Grammar, in Familiar Conversations, Inductive and Progressive: Uniting and Harmonizing Theory and Practice, and Adapted to Oral Teaching. New York, 1875)

        A 19th Century College Entrance Exam in English Grammar

        ​According to Sharon Crowley in Composition in the University (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), entrance examinations to American colleges before 1870 "seem not to have required knowledge of English literature, English philology, or the more theoretical ranges of rhetoric or linguistics." Expectations changed, however, when attention began to shift from the teaching of classical languages to English in the last part of the 19th century.

        In 1870, students who had applied to Illinois Industrial University (now the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) were required to take this entrance exam in English.

        1. Name the vowels; the labials; the dentals; the palatals.
        2. Define Etymology; the name and different classes of words.
        3. Give the different modes of expressing Gender in English—illustrate each.
        4. Give the four rules for the formation of the plural of nouns, and an example under each.
        5. Give four rules for the formation of the possessive case of names; and write the possessive plural of lady, man, wife.
        6. Give the distinction between personal and relative pronouns.
        7. What are auxiliary verbs? Name them.
        8. Give the third-person singular of the verb sit in all the tenses of the indicative mood.
        9. He said that that that that that pupil parsed was not that that he should have parsed. Parse the that’s in that sentence.
        10. He that cometh unto me I will in no wise count out. Between you and I there is much mischief in that plan. I intended last year to have visited you. Correct these sentences, and give four reasons for your corrections.

        (reprinted by Mary Trachsel in Institutionalizing Literacy: The Historical Role of College Entrance Examinations in English, Southern Illinois University Press, 1992)

        As Crowley observes, incoming college students "were expected to have a formal or book-based knowledge of the grammatical rules of English—the same sort of knowledge, in fact, that they were expected to have of Greek and Latin grammars."