Sunday, August 17, 2008

Word of the Week: parse

Parse isn't a word I use, but when I hear it, I usually feel pretty confident that I “get” what it means. That’s certainly how I felt when Andrew Bacevich used it in an interview on Bill Moyers Journal the other day. Here’s the sentence (from the transcript of that interview) in which he used it:

“Parsing every word, every phrase, that either Senator Obama or Senator McCain utters, as if what they say is going to reveal some profound and important change that was going to come about if they happened to be elected.”

From the way he used it I figured it has to do with pulling apart every sentence to try to figure out what the speaker means. (Not a huge intellectual challenge figuring it out from what Bacevich said, I know!)

Though I was confident I had the gist of the meaning, I decide to look it up. Indeed, the second meaning (for the transitive verb), according to, was bang on: “2: to examine in a minute way: analyze critically”.

But what I found interesting was the first definition (for the transitive verb): “1a : to resolve (as a sentence) into component parts of speech and describe them grammatically b: to describe grammatically by stating the part of speech and explaining the inflection and syntactical relationship”. So, my assumption about it having to do with pulling apart every sentence was correct, but I didn’t realize it meant doing so in terms of parts of speech.

I’m guessing, but I suspect Bacevich is of the generation that was taught how to diagram a sentence -- so he probably could parse a sentence into its parts of speech. Unfortunately, many of us never learned how to do that. (I think I had a substitute teacher who tried to teach us, but it wasn’t a normal part of our curriculum -- and I'm pretty sure it hasn’t been for some time.) That’s a pity, I think…

I guess the only kind of parsing most of us will ever do is the kind described in the second definition.


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