Parsing* the English Sentence

*parse (pars) v. tr. 1. To break (a sentence) down into its component parts of speech with an explanation of the form, function, and syntactical relationship of part. 2. To describe (a word) by stating its part of speech, form, and syntactical relationships in a sentence. (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition)

We’ve discussed sentences in several posts on this website; for example, when we talked about sentence fragments, comma splices or run-on/fused sentences, and sentence construction and rhythm. This post looks more closely at the sentence and its constituent parts.

The sentence is the basic unit of thought, and its grammar consists of words with specific forms and functions arranged in specific ways.

In an English sentence, word order makes a difference. But word form and function also make a difference in how we use a word and its meaning in a sentence.

If you’re a native speaker, or if you can speak and write English, you already know a great deal about the structure of an English sentence. To make sentences grammatically and rhetorically effective, you need to know more about the basic parts.

The traditional term for these basic components is parts of speech, although many grammarians and linguists have problems with the terminology and prefer to call the components word classes or grammatical categories or even devise their own unique or idiosyncratic terminology. Without going into the history or politics of the name debate, I like to stick to the old label parts of speech because most people are familiar with it.

Many English words regularly function as more than one part of speech.

Look at the use of the word book in each of the examples below:

a. book a plane flight
b. take a good book to the beach
 c. have book knowledge

Can you identify the examples in which the word functions as an adjective, in which as a verb, and in which a noun?

Check your answers here.


Not all parts of speech are equal; in fact, linguists divide them into two groups,

major word classes and minor word classes.

Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs belong to the major word class group. Pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, and articles all belong to the minor word class group.

One characteristic that differentiates these two groups is their numbers: the major word classes have a great many members, while the minor word classes have few members. For instance, there are hundreds of thousands (and growing) nouns while there are only three articles (a, an, the), seven coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), and about seventy prepositions. (For a list of prepositions, check out this website.)

Another distinguishing characteristic is that the major word classes have meanings that are easily captured in dictionary-type definitions. They have reference to actual things and can be shown ostensibly by pointing to an example in the world; for example, using the word horse for a particular animal.

Minor word classes on the other hand do not have referential meanings; rather, their meanings are derived from their grammatical function.  For example, prepositions are small words which are connecting words that show relationship, such as connecting a noun or pronoun to another word in a sentence: the avenue past the stoplights.

Finally, major word classes are “open” word groups, while minor word classes are “closed” ones. To be “open” means to be receptive to new members. Think of the new nouns, verbs, and adjectives that have entered English in recent years, often originating in technological (worldwide web; to boot up), slang (cool, awesome), or casual contexts (like as a conjunctive adverb). Closed classes, on the other hand, are not receptive to new members.

There has been very little change in these word groups in the last five hundred years or so of Modern English. One small change has occurred with pronouns: thee, thou, thy, and thine were once commonly used in speech, but now they are no longer viable. As a language changes to reflect a changed culture, old words die, and new words are introduced, but again these new words will belong to the category of major word classes (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs).

Sentence Grammar

The sentence is a fundamentally human creation. Like humans, sentences come in a seemingly endless variety of shapes and sizes. Some stretch line upon line, others stop short in two or three words. Yet the sentence has a definable structure.

An example of a basic or bare bones sentence is the following: Dogs bark. It fits the definition of a sentence most Standard English grammars use–a group of words with a subject and a verb that gives a sense of completeness.

Because they carry most of the meaning, the subject and the verb are the two most important words in any sentence. To identify the subject and verb of a sentence, look for the verb first: verbs are usually easier to find because they express an action, a condition, or a state of being. Then ask who or what of the verb to find the subject of the sentence. (Note: Some sentences that function as imperatives [giving a command] do not appear to have a subject: Go away! In these sentences, the subject [you] is said to be understood: [You] Go away!).

We can take the same subject and verb, the same bare bones sentence–Dogs bark–and expand it with additions called modifiers.  Look below to see how we can expand dogs bark:

All the dogs in my neighborhood near the college bark during the day at bikers and joggers.

Can you recognize that except for all and the, the modifiers in this sentence are prepositional phrases?
Modify means to alter, to describe or make the meaning of a word or sentence more definite. Modifiers add more meaning and interest to a sentence and are ways to expand and make our sentences grow.

How do we identify the constituent parts of sentences and make sense of all the modifiers and other elements we can add to a bare bones sentence?

There are different approaches and methods for analyzing sentences. Some readers may be familiar with the classic sentence diagramming (or parsing).

Example of sentence diagramming


An alternative method is another type of diagram called a linguistic tree.

Example of linguistic tree


Don’t be discouraged if you sometimes feel lost or if you aren’t sure what happening in a sentence–you’re in good company. One of my favorite quotes about language states, “The English sentence contains territories as yet uncharted.”

Your facility with describing and understanding the English sentence will increase as you have more practice and experience with language. Reading and writing will expose you to the rich varieties and possibilities in sentences.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *