In Praise of Parsing

John Claughton

Roger Ascham (1515–68) became the tutor of Elizabeth I in 1548 and he was suitably proud of his pupil’s ability in Latin, Italian, French, Spanish and, joy of joys, Greek. She might even have been as good as her younger brother, Edward, the founder of thirty schools in his brief reign. A decade later Ascham was the first person to use the word “parse” in perhaps the first book in English on ‘teaching and learning’, or perhaps just teaching, The Scholemaster (published posthumously in 1570): “Let the childe, by and by, both construe and parse it ouer againe.” Of course, to “parse” is “To describe the syntactic role of (a word) in a sentence or phrase”, “as any fule kno”.[1]

An engraving of Roger Ascham, after a sketch of c. 1550.

When I learnt Latin – and Greek – exactly four hundred years after Ascham, I lived, unknowingly, in the world of “parse” and even “construe”. Of course, we didn’t call it that in the iron heart of England but, from the very beginning, I was taught the two elements that make parsing possible: the exact memorisation of the forms of nouns, verbs and adjectives, so that I could recite my declensions like my times tables; and the rigorous and careful application of that secure knowledge to identify exactly the Latin words on the page. So, put simply, when I was confronted by

arma virumque cano


μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος,

I had been taught first to talk about a neuter plural noun or an accusative singular noun, or a first person singular present tense verb, or a singular imperative – or even a vocative.

In the last fifty years, that ancient modus (nominative, masculine, singular 2nd declension noun) operandi (genitive gerund) has not been the only game in town. Indeed, since 1982, I have spent much of my time teaching the Cambridge Latin Course or presiding over a school which has taught the Cambridge Latin Course, one based upon an entirely different approach. After all, on page 1 it still doesn’t like to mention that viā is a different form from via.

Briseis and Phoenix – or is it Hecamede and Nestor?: tondo of an Attic red-figure cup, c. 490 BC (found in the Etruscan city of Vulci, Italy, and now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Now, I have become a combination of Nestor, teller of old tales to those who won’t listen, and part Phoenix, tutor to the greats of the future. In that tutoring, I have taught a remarkable Chinese girl living in Berlin whose wizardry at parsing is only limited by the fact that English is her third language – and Latin her fourth, or vice versa.

However, I have also taught several – too many – students who attend some of the most academically outstanding schools in this country. They are very able, very conscientious, very ambitious, very nice, and possessors, either now or by August 2022, of top grades in GCSE Latin (or Greek). And yet, the pupils I have come across can’t decline servus or make meus agree with matrem. And, if you ask them to “parse” a word, they might say – more in hope than expectation – “Is it a participle?”

The deep flaw – and deep sadness – in all this is that these clever, willing students can only get the grades they want, it seems to me, by treating the set text as an English memory test – “learning the crib” as the ancient phrase goes. They have no choice: they have got neither the learning nor the method to “parse” and “construe” any sentence in Tacitus’ narrative of Germanicus and Piso, nor to see what agrees with what when Priam sets forth in vain:

in urbis uti captae casum convulsaque vidit
limina tectorum et medium in penetralibus hostem,
arma diu senior desueta trementibus aevo
circumdat nequiquam umeris et inutile ferrum               
cingitur, ac densos fertur moriturus in hostis.
(Aen. 2.50711)[2]

And the teachers haven’t got the time, especially on three periods a week: “Just write it down.”

The death of Priam, Jules Lefebvre, 1861 (Beaux-Arts de Paris, France).

Of course, you might say that this doesn’t matter as long as the kids are doing Latin and getting a 9 (the top grade available here in the UK) and the department is getting good results. I disagree, for four reasons.

The first is that learning Latin without understanding and knowing its grammatical structure takes away one of the fundamental values of studying the language: if you “parse” and “construe” Latin, it teaches careful and accurate reading, methodical and imaginative and flexible thought, skills which are of value whether you are going to be a lawyer or a doctor or a linguist – or indeed anything.

The second is that one of the joys of Latin the Ascham way is that it provides you with the intellectual challenge of thinking about a language that is different, but not entirely different, from English: sorting out a sentence from Ovid or Tacitus brings the same satisfaction as solving a Maths problem, although I never have.

The third is that there’s no real point in learning Latin for three or four or five – or more – years if you aren’t actually going to read, understand and value the wonder of real Latin – and the very different way in which a Roman author can convey meaning.

The fourth is that this short-cut to GCSE (usually taken at age 16) betrays students who want to go beyond GCSE into the promised land of A Level (usually taken at age 18) – or IB Diploma (likewise) – Latin or Greek. For, when they start doing post-GCSE Latin, they realise that they don’t actually know grammar with sufficient confidence to cope with the complexities ahead. And then what? I’ll tell you what. The teacher produces online linear texts, the Latin on one line, the translation on the next, for those assiduous students to learn. Of course, this may improve their powers of memory, but, whatever it is, it isn’t the study of Latin.

Or at least, not as Ascham – or I – knew it.

John Claughton attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham and then read Classics at Merton College Oxford. After two brief and undistinguished careers as a professional cricketer and merchant banker, he first taught the Cambridge Latin Course in 1982 at Bradfield College and then taught Latin, Greek and Ancient History at Eton College from 1984 to 2001. He was Headmaster of Solihull School from 2001 to 2005 and Chief Master of King Edward’s from 2006 to 2016, where he taught the Cambridge Latin Course every year. He has written two books for Cambridge University Press, Herodotus and the Persian Wars (2008) and a translation of Aristophanes’ Clouds (2012); in retirement, he has been working on a project, ‘WoLLoW‘ (World of Languages and Languages of the World) to provide a multilingual course for KS2 and KS3 pupils: 


1 Molesworth apud How to be Topp (passim).
2 When he [=Priam] saw the fate of the captured city and the doors of buildings torn off and the enemy in the midst of sacred spaces, the old man pointlessly put round his trembling shoulders armour that had long been left unused, he girt himself with his useless sword, and he was carried off into the densely-packed enemy, destined to die.