How to Parse, what to parse, and why to parse:
Parsing means "to break down a sentence into its component parts of speech with an explanation of form, function, and syntactical relationship of each part" ("Parse," def. 1)). It also means " to examine closely or subject to detailed analysis, especially by breaking down into smaller parts" ("Parse," def. 3). For English class the reason to parse is to provide careful, painstaking analysis of the quotes you choose to support your arguments in your paper or speech. Parsing is necessary in writing because it explains how you interpret and use--even manipulate--language to effectively prove your argument.
Analysis that is “excellent” (via CAPT Or AP Language/Literature rubric definitions) does not simply provide quotes from the text thrown in to prove what you have just said. It goes beyond simple support to demonstrate a clear understanding of a text and the language and parts of speech (like literary, rhetorical, or poetic devices) of that text in a way that shows articulate thought and artful, even surprising, connections among words, motifs, themes, allusions, and/or styles.
This is all very cerebral, so let's take an imaginary assignment and show how to parse to prove your point:
Sample Assignment: Prove that the characters from William Goldings's Lord of the Flies are symbolic of abstract ideas such as mythological archetypes, political systems, or religious figures.
1. You decide to prove they are mythological archetypes because you like mythology.
2. Go through the text, and isolate quotes that you think will help you prove your argument. List them in a dialectical journal or other graphic organizer. When choosing your quotes, pick more figurative, less literal ones. There is more room to "play" with words when they aren't just literal. "Go!" basically means "go," and it isn't the best choice with which to be creative.
3. You decide to prove that Ralph is a hero archetype. Here's a quote right out of Golding:
"You could see now that he might make a boxer, as far as width and heaviness of shoulders went, but there was a mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil" (12).
4. Now let's examine the parts of that quote and see how they could be used to specifically demonstrate our opinion that Ralph is a hero:
"boxer"= fit and toned fighter, fast, agile, aggressive, masculine. These are all traits that will stand him in good stead within a "survival of the fittest" society. He is also already in sharp contrast to Piggy who is fat and flabby, Simon who faints, and Jack who can hit a "high C." Of the four main characters, it looks like our "boxer" has the most potential for a hero, who is usually associated with strength and physical size.
"width and heaviness of shoulders"= already at twelve he is "built." He has the physic of a man. Most heroes have beautiful faces and bodies. Think Odysseus. Think Romeo. Think sports heroes. Think super heroes. Whether superficial or not, in contemporary and classical cultures, most heroes are associated with beauty because all cultures celebrate beauty. Since heroes embody the values of their society, Ralph, the golden-haired boy with the build, fits the hero archetype.
"mildness"= although physically masculine, Ralph's manner isn't at all intimidating. He is "mild." An OED (Oxford English Dictionary) check reveals that "mild" is from the Old English word "milde," which means "gentle and merciful." It also has associations with "tender" and "kind." His approachability added to his physical masculine appearance creates the ideal of a powerful but beneficent leader. He'd be somebody you could count on when things on a deserted island got tough. "Mild" also has religious tones as Jesus is repeatedly described in literature as "meek and mild."
"eyes"= windows to the soul. If Ralph's eyes show mildness, then it is clear that this trait is an integral part of him--his soul.
"proclaimed"= announced, made a bold statement. Ralph's goodness is obvious; it's not ambiguous or mysterious.
"no devil"= echoes his earlier kindness and goodness, but declaring him "no" devil means somebody else is going to be the devil. After all, a hero is only as strong as the villain he fights and defeats. In order for Ralph to be a hero, he must defeat one who is allegorically the very devil. Enter Jack.
The original quote from Golding was just two lines. Yet, look what we managed to pull out of his words. That's the idea of parsing. Recipe: It's a little close-reading, a little dictionary, a little application of your knowledge of the world, a little imagination, and a little personal connection. You wind up with great analysis and strong proof of your thesis. You probably also wind up with "A" level support, but who cares about grades? We're just talking about good writing practices. Right?
5. In order for optimal success on English academic writing, the ratio of quote to your analysis is 1:4. That means one line of quote for four lines of your analysis of that quote. This ratio ensures that your originality reports (like on Turnitin.com) are always lower than 25 percent, a percentage that many college professors deem acceptable. In other words, you didn't just stuff your paper with quotes to fill up space or make your paper longer. Instead, you have used quotes to show your thoughts, reactions, connections, and understanding of those quotes and have related them to the bigger picture of what you're proving in your paper--your thesis.
For a more advanced example of parsing, see Parsing II