How to Parse Sentences

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Parsing sentences involves identifying the function of each word. Formal English grammar used to be taught in school regularly in the belief that this would improve students' correct usage of the language. However, research showed that completion of formal grammar exercises had a minimal positive effect on students' written compositions. Parsing sentences fell out of favor. Today educators say class time is better spent engaging in writing in context. Nevertheless, it is useful for students to be able to identify the parts of speech and understand their function in sentences. Knowing how to parse a sentence may be beneficial to students learning English as a second language.

  • Knowledge of parts of speech
  • Text material
  • Notebook
  • Colored pens or pencils

1 Select a short sentence from a newspaper

Select a short sentence from a newspaper, magazine or book. Copy the sentence into your notebook. Leave a blank line in between each line of writing.

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2 Read the sentence aloud

Read the sentence aloud. Visualize the meaning of the sentence.

3 Decide is the main action

Decide what is the main action of the sentence. For example, in the sentence, "The young man who stole the money ran quickly down the street," the main action is the running, so the word "ran" is the main predicate of the sentence.

4 Examine the sentence

Examine the sentence to determine whether there are words that are add further description to the main predicate. In this example the descriptors are "quickly down the street." Try asking yourself the questions, "how?" "where?" and "why?" about the main predicate, in this example, "ran" to help you find the descriptors.

5 Draw a double line

Draw a double line under all the words in the complete predicate. In this example, "ran quickly down the street." Note that this predicate tells you the action -- "ran" as well as where and how the running occurred. Draw a line with a different colored pencil under the word "ran" to identify it as the main predicate.

6 Identify the doer

Identify the doer of the action of the main predicate. Ask yourself the question "who did the action?" In this example, you will ask, "who did the running?" or "who ran?" Draw a single line under the doer of the action or the subject. In this example, the main subject is "man".

7 Examine the sentence-2

Examine the sentence to determine whether there are words that are add further description to the main subject. In this example the descriptors are "the young man who stole the money." Try asking yourself the questions, "what kind of?" or "which?" about the main subject, in this example, "man" to help you find the descriptors.

8 Draw another line

Draw another line under the complete subject using a different colored pen. In this example the complete subject is, "The young man who stole the money."

9 Repeat steps

Repeat steps 1 through 8 for additional sentences to give yourself more practice. Keep in mind that parsing sentences consists of identifying the main subject and complete subject as well as the main predicate and complete predicate of a sentence. In addition, parsing includes identifying the words which modify or describe the subject and predicate.

10 Develop a color-coded system

Develop a color-coded system of symbols to help you distinguish the modifying words as you parse the sentences. Use different colors or marks such as round or square brackets to identify adjectives such as "young" and clauses such as "who stole the money."

  • Start with shorter sentences until you have mastered the skill of parsing sentences. Longer sentences with multiple clauses will only confuse you when you are beginning to understand these grammatical rules.
  • Purchase a grammar text or examine online resources. Study further details regarding grammatical components of sentences such as clauses as well as information about the parts of speech.

Freddie Silver started writing newsletters for the Toronto District School Board in 1997. Her areas of expertise include staff management and professional development. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, focusing on emotions and professional relationships.