Tuesday, June 12, 2012


I've used this one fairly often recently, almost always in writing rather than aloud, but don't really know what it means, so I probably often use it wrongly. "The sentence doesn't quite parse" or "I couldn't parse the sense of this." In general, I take it to mean that something in language doesn't quite work, or doesn't entirely make sense. I'm guessing it has a more technically grammatical function.

I know, it's awfully close to perse, but we'll do our best to keep them separate...


Quae pars orationis? "What part of speech?" If you've studied Latin in school, this is no doubt a familiar question. Parsing once meant identifying the parts (pars) of speech and finding out their relation to other parts in a sentence. It's the usual trajectory from Latin through Old French. When I was in school, they had long dropped Latin from the curriculum, but there was still a hold over unit of diagramming a sentence. I actually wasn't very good at it for some reason. I found it perplexing.

Maybe if I'd had this guy to explain it...

Here's an interesting parsing of  one of the president's own sentences courtesy of BoingBoing.

Anyway, parsing has branched out a bit from its origins. It can, as I've sometimes used it, mean "to subject something to scrutiny, break it down into its components, examine more closely." This is to take the activity of parsing a sentence and turn it into a metaphor for any analytical activity.

But what seems to be a more current and perhaps prevalent use of the word now takes it back to its original usage.This is in the realm of computer language. In fact, when you check out the Wikipedia article on "parsing", it's the computer languages and linguistics that get first mention, and "natural languages" come in second. Parsing  is now about analyzing a string of "tokens" or chunks of data, which are only sometimes words. Parsing probably works a bit better for computers, because they are more natural rule followers.I'd say they live for rules, but of course they don't "live" for anything. They merely follow instructions.

The cool thing about human language is that it's a bit more ambiguous than a set of rules and protocols can contain. One of the fun things I learned about in writing this up is the idea of "garden path sentences." This is when a sentence tends to lead a reader to draw certain conclusions in the beginning, which don't end up parsing in the end. "The man who hunts ducks out on the weekend." "The old dog the footsteps of the young." It's an effect often seen in the terse style of headlines. There's even been a proposal that these ambiguous headers be termed Crash Blossoms in honor of this headline: "Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms".

Unlike other experiences of being led down the garden path, these brief detours are pretty fun.


  1. Loved this, down to the garden paths and the garden gnome. We might be able to parse his beard...

  2. Thanks, Kathleen. As for the gnome, I think I'd be a bit afraid to try.

  3. If given a sentence to parse
    I’d say, “Would you please kiss my arse?”

    to which the conclusion would have to be

    My grammatical skills are quite sparse.

    This week I found a headline in my newspaper that read: "Efforts to decriminalize marijuana growing" -- until I had it corrected to read: "Efforts growing to decriminalize marijuana."
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Nice, uh, poem.

    I wonder what tangles appear in other languages. It seems some of these ambiguities arise because light can be both particle and wave.

    Er, I mean some words can be both noun and verb. At the very least.

  5. I would imagine that languages where order carries less meaning than it does in English would allow rearrangement or order for comic and other kinds of rhetorical effect.

  6. Yes, the comedy would probably come from equal but opposite sources.

  7. And then there's J.K. Rowling's creation of the word "Parseltongue" which in Harry's world is the language spoken by snakes and certain wizards. The etymology, it is rumored, comes from that meaning of splitting (division, parsing) to refer to the snake's forked tongue.

    Sorry to always come into these discussions from a YA point of view. Such is my literary life at the moment...

  8. Your point of view is always welcome here, Julie. I actually thought you might have some thoughts to share on Draco Malfoy on my last post,as you may be the only H.P. authority who posts in here...

    Funny that you and Kathleen have both picked up on the parting aspect, which the one "part" I had pretty much let slide.

  9. Hmmm..i used to pass by the parse often. In fact parsing was a word I quickly passed past by until I, like you, felt I would not pass muster if asked to define parse in linguistic, syntactical relations...therefore it was incumbent on me to define and understand parse, parsing and parses before I passed by it again.... in fact in my last post I saw it several times as I researched a few grammatical and structural terms,trying to figure out what part of a sentence parse sat, but alas I saw it and ignored it...but thats all in the past...
    thanks for enlightening me!

  10. Dan, you're welcome. I hope you will parse this way again.