I think I’ll pass on the parsing

As children few of us know any grammatical terminology, yet we’re still able to speak grammatically. In school we might be taught the ‘grammar’ of our own language. Traditionally, in English-speaking countries at least, this has consisted mainly of parsing sentences – an exercise that involves labelling the parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc). Recently though, there’s been a trend to avoid teaching any kind of grammar at all, at least in the UK.

Those taught to parse sentences seem keen to point out that many people ‘don’t know their grammar’ these days, with the implication that this is a bad thing. However, even people who don’t know, or are not sure of, the difference between nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc. are able to cobble together grammatically correct sentences.

The origin of parsing sentences goes back to ancient Greece: the Greeks developed a description or grammar of their language in order to teach it to non-Greeks. The most famous Greek grammarian, Dionysius Thrax, established the idea of parts of speech, which he based on the ideas of Aristotle. In his Téchnē, written in the 2nd century BC, he stated that Greek had eight parts of speech: noun, verb, participle, article, pronoun, preposition, adverb and conjunction. Adjectives were a sub-class of nouns. To ‘know one’s grammar’ was essentially a matter of being able to parse sentences and name the parts of speech. Syntax was usually ignored.

The Greek model was copied by the Romans and adapted to Latin, a language different to Greek in many ways. The Latin model was later used for many other languages, few of which were much like Latin or Greek.

Were you taught grammar at school? How was it taught, and do you remember much of it?

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This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

12 Responses to I think I’ll pass on the parsing

  1. Declan says:

    I was taught very basic grammer in school in English, none at all in Irish (Not really formally by labeling thing, but in endings etc. instead. It was common sense brought about by speaking). In German, I was taught quite complex grammer and I was taught French by my mother, and she taught me all the grammer technically.

  2. Weili says:

    Grammar wasn’t taught in Taiwan, at least not when I went to school there until the fourth grade when I moved to the U.S.

    Although learning Chinese grammar, which is arguably much more simple and easier than English grammar, may be important to foreign speakers, to native Chinese speakers grammar was just second nature, something everyone knows but never really thinks about.

  3. gee says:

    Here in Germany basic grammar is teached in elemantary school, later on it gets really complicated with all those adverbials. You cannot really forget to differentiate between nouns and other words, as nouns are always capitalized in German.

    When learning English at school we had quite a lot of grammar but it was something I grasped intuitively. French on the other hand was a nightmare imo, I just did not get the grammar and there always seemed to be more exceptions than rules.

    Latin was an interesting case: I actually learned a lot about German grammar (more than the average person will ever need actually)! Well and then there where also those strange concepts not found in any other language I knew, such as the “gerundivum”…

  4. The best grammar instruction I ever had in English was, believe it or not, in a 4th grade class. That particular school district was very strong in English and literature, and taught not just parsing sentences to determine the parts of speech, but looked at what phrases did in the sentence: subject, verb, indirect object, direct object, subordinate or…insubordinate clauses. Or whatever those are called, but I remember the concept. ;-)

    But THE best grammar instruction I ever got was when I was learning Spanish and German.

  5. TJ says:

    Unfortunately, here most of the students in my generation (and maybe even earlier and after generations) hated to study the Arabic language because of the grammar thing. After graduating from highschool, it is obligatory for us to take something about the grammar even in college life. Yet, when I look back and see how things evolved and how complicated it was, I have a feeling that I judged my language wrongly and in fact the thing that made me hate it is the staff of Arabic teachers that we have in highschool! I believe most of them teach just because they gain something for it not because they do indeed like the language, because when we studied such things we didn’t really felt anything of their passion to the language, and this is indeed a big trouble when someone hates his/her own language!
    Nowadays, from time to time I try to learn but by my own and by own self, learn something about the grammar and also something about literature words used in Arabic (classical Arabic)!

  6. TJ–Now there’s something our countries have in common: nobody can suck the life out of a subject like a teacher! For me it was gym…they were so nasty that I wound up hating every possible team sport! ;-)

  7. Sam says:

    I’m in my mid-forties and grew up in the United States. I remember being taught how to diagram sentences in grade school and learning about the parts of speech.

    In ninth grade (at about age 14) we learned about verb tenses. I thought it was actually pretty simple, and it was not much more than learning names of tenses. I knew the perfect tenses (present perfect, past perfect, future perfect) were out there, just not the names.

    I teach English composition at a university here, and students are often woefully deficient in this area. Their sentence structure is a problem, and I often encounter nonstandard verb forms: I seen, I have saw, etc. Students are generally more familiar with the definitions of nouns and verbs and adjectives, but the other parts of speech are somewhat more elusive. Explaining that “however” and “although” are not interchangeable is a real challenge.

  8. When you say parsing, I think of parsing Greek words, such as:

    εύρηκα – 1st person singular perfect active indicative of ευρίσκω: I have found.

    Although I can parse Greek words like this, I consider it much more important to know the meaning of the Greek word itself, not just the grammatical terms. Thus, απελευσόμεθα to me means “we will go away”, not just the 1st person plural future form of απέρχομαι.

  9. Delia Turner says:

    I was taught grammar in middle school–diagramming sentences, etc.–and while it didn’t do me any good and the manuscripts of my books need no copy-editing, I am now an English teacher and wrestling with the social pressures to teach it, my own uneasy recognition that analyzing complex sentences requires recognizing antecedents and parallel structures, and the gloomy recognition that labeling parts of speech does damn-all for fluency of reading and writing. The language teachers are the most forceful in arguing for it–the kids don’t recognize the names for verb tenses when they get to Latin, Spanish, and French–so I teach that in a targeted way. Next year I plan to integrate a daily five-minute grammar refresher into my classes, along with the daily poem and daily journal writing exercise.

  10. Adam says:

    I never heard the term “parsing” before. Here in the USA it was always called “diagramming”, but for some reason, I don’t recall ever having a teacher emphasize diagramming.

  11. Francisco says:

    I’ve lived in Costa Rica all my life, and I had tons of grammar lessons both in Spanish and English. I remember we used words such as morphology, syntax and semantics when I was 16 or 17 in high school, at least in my Spanish lessons. Ok, maybe semantics came a while later ;).

    I first heard the word “parsing” in college, in programming class, using it in the context of computer language. However, parsing as dividing a sentence into clauses and/or parts of speech was pretty much the most important exercise in the language classroom during all my years in school.

    Oh, by the way, the Webster’s Dictionary defines morphology as:
    “The study of the structure and form of words in language or a language, including inflection, derivation, and the formation of compounds.”
    In my school, (or maybe in Spanish ;P) it meant identifying a word as a noun, adjective, etc. They seem a different thing, don’t they?

    And in a not-so-related subject, does any other student of Japanese also believe that Japanese grammar is even more riddled with exceptions than English grammar?

  12. Badger says:

    Many of us say we know the grammar of our native language “intuitively,” without formally studying it. However, our understanding of grammar isn’t really “intuitive” at all but based on years of informal learning in early childhood when by trial and error we learn what is and isn’t grammatically correct.

    Many of us, like Ms. Turner above, also claim to speak and write perfectly well without formal study of grammar and like her say that learning to parse sentences didn’t do us any good. While it’s true that one can reach an acceptable level of proficiency in a language without formally studying its grammar, you will never master the finer points of punctuation and style unless you can analyze how sentences work. The sloppy grammar in Ms. Turner’s submission makes me doubt that “the manuscripts of [her] books need no copyediting.”