It's difficult to dismiss either as a coincidence, given Cohen is a lawyer and has carefully parsed his comments throughout this situation. He has regularly offered what seemed to be denials but didn't totally deny the details of what the Journal had reported.
Did Trump’s lawyer just implicate Trump in the Stormy Daniels payment?

What's the meaning of parse here?

I've seen similar uses in journalism, where:

  • It refers more to expression (or even the product of expression) rather than analysis.
  • There is sometimes a connotation of prevaricate, obfuscate, or dissemble.

To me, the traditional definition doesn't quite fit here:

Cohen is a lawyer and has carefully examined/analyzed (minutely) his comments throughout this situation.

But I can't think of a synonym for the author's meaning either.

Other uses

The earliest he parsed his words I've found is from 1998:

Bush parsed his words carefully, unlike a Born Again Christian.

There are many like this from 2000 on (thanks @GetzelR). I hear these as nearly identical to He chose his words carefully.

But there are a few similar to my original passage.

Re. a description of political exile (2004):

Aristide was very clear that what happened in Haiti was a modern kidnapping […] He was angry and determined, very straightforward and never parsed his words."

Re. Ted Cruz's position on immigration (2015):

Like a Slick Lawyer, Cruz Parsed His Words on the Question of Amnesty

[…] As one might imagine, the veracity of Cruz’s statement rests heavily upon what he means by “legalization.”

Re. President Trump's travel ban that's not a travel ban (2017):

Spicer appeared in front of the media in the wake of the first executive order and went out of his way to parse words. […] “That's not a ban. What it is, is to make sure that the people who are coming in are vetted properly … a ban would mean people can't get in.”

Re. James Comey's opening testimony (2017):

I think the way this is worded, there's something in there for everybody. There's enough in there for Republicans to attack former Director Comey and defend the president, and there's enough in there for Democrats to defend former Director Comey and attack the president. […] There's a lot of parsing of words.

  • 4
    If you're parsing your speech, you have carefully chosen every word to give the exact meaning you intend, which may not be the meaning a casual listener infers. So there really is no opportunity to use a synonym, as it will change the meaning subtly. Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:39
  • 3
    It sounds something like "phrased" crossed with "parceled (out)" (in the "carefully distributed" sense), all wrapped up in "analyzed" (the original meaning of parsed). There may not be a perfect synonym, which is presumably why journalists are stretching the word parse to fit their desired meaning.
    – 1006a
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:56
  • 1
    Needs more context. Where is that excerpt from?
    – Laurel
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:58
  • @Laurel I've added "He has regularly offered what seemed to be denials but didn't totally deny the details of what the Journal had reported." washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/02/14/…
    – sam
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 21:49
  • @RupertMorrish I guess my premise was: if this is the "wrong" use of parse, what's the right way to say the same thing?
    – sam
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 22:15

6 Answers 6


To explain this in a specific context, in programming, one can "parse" an input, meaning, "dissecting and considering each individual 'token' for individual analysis."

A way to interpret this, and is actually the background for why one "parses" an input in programming, is that each word is carefully analyzed, selected, maybe even doctored, before release (being written, being spoken, etc.)

In that sense, I always take it to mean that whenever someone "carefully parses" their words, they mean to say that they've thought about it, gone over it carefully a few times, then chosen more suitable alternatives, all before outputting their words.

Likewise, if someone parses someone else's input, it's to mean word choice and content analysis is being performed in order to reveal double meanings or to unveil trickery in wordplay.

EDIT: I've highlighted the word above that might be the best synonym for this use of parsing, which is, as you ask, possibly contradicting what the word parsing actually means.

  • The programming sense of parsing input is the same (mutatis mutandis) of the word as the traditional one as it applies to parsing natural language. The implication of release after analysis is where the sense being asked about here differs from both the traditional language-related sense and the programming-related sense, and also the thing that seems at odd with normal usage. Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 21:56
  • I'm familiar with the meaning from linguistics/programming. I guess I'm curious about how the sense changed from interpret to construct a statement intended to mislead (resist interpretation).
    – sam
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 22:06
  • @sam My guess is that the construction of a statement intended to mislead is removed from the fact that words needs to be carefully chosen for a comment to be deliberately of a specific nature or to accomplish a specific goal. In this case, it's misleading. So, i.e. he parsed his words precisely so that he could not be construed to be of one opinion or the other (probably for the end result of protecting his ass(ets)).
    – psosuna
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 22:22
  • @sam or, in other words, he constructed a statement, ran it by himself a few times (parsed) , and decided to make changes (doctored), based on his internal review.
    – psosuna
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 22:43
  • Cherry-picked

'Pared' - which means adorn, peel, trim, prepare. It means to 'peel' and also separate skin - that which is wanted - from that which is not wanted - leaving - the fruit.

'...Cohen has carefully pared his comments throughout this situation...'


Or, how about 'Chose his words carefully', which means 'to think carefully about what you are saying', which in your example would then be: 'carefully chose his comments throughout the conversation...' Selected would indicate even more precision. cherry-picked would mean he 'carefully picked only the best' things to say, as when picking fruit from a tree.


Edited - 'Cohen edited his comments throughout this situation' - alluding to a 'parsing process' going on in his mind before he spoke.

Trimmed - 'Cohen trimmed his comments throughout this situation' - as if he was trimming them, like trimming an ornamental hedge, or cutting hair.

Shaved - Shaved would express even more care and precision as if he 'shaved his words' - cut off tiny pieces, with a razor.

Note on origin of 'parse':

If you click 'editor's note' on the 'traditional definition' link given by Sam, you'll see it says:

"Parse" comes from the first element of the Latin term for "part of speech" - "pars orationis." It's an old word that has been used in the schoolroom since the 16th century, but it did not graduate to its extended, non-grammar-related sense until the late 18th century.


  • 1
    This connotes the deliberate selection of a half-truth well.
    – sam
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 2:57
  • 1
    There's such similarity with pare (prepare_/_trim) that I wonder if these meanings have overlapped somehow.
    – sam
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 3:25
  • Well they are all options, but have subtle differences. 'Pare' can mean to separate the part that is wanted from that which is not. The expression 'pare down' specifically expresses that. 'Trim' denotes 'remove the excess' - often when one is on the way to specifically designing something - a dress, a beef stew or indeed - a speech. 'Prepare' means to get ready - beforehand. So that would have the sense of the speech being carefully planned and thought out at home first.
    – Jelila
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 5:20

The problem which the poster presents is finding an implication of prevarication in the word "parse." It is not there. The implication is from the context, and it would be present if other straightforward synonyms of parse were used.

"Cohen carefully constructed/considered/etc his comments" would have similar implications to a greater or lesser degree. Telling us his words were chosen carefully tells us he conveying a meaning more narrow than the colloquial or, if the context suggests it, that he has something to hide.

As an interesting demonstration, consider the first sentence in isolation. Parse has only the sense of intentional precision. It is not until the second sentence that shades of dishonesty begin to appear. The dishonesty is associated with the parsing, and thus (incorrectly) with the word parse.

(The other difficulty presented has been glossed over by others in this conversation because a speaker can be said to have analyzed his word choice, if not his presentation.)

  • I wish I had more references at hand (I don't), but all the similar usages I recall have had the same connotation. It has never meant carefully constructed for simplicity, clarity, or transparency, only the opposite. considered (partly in the sense of hedge) is good.
    – sam
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 2:39
  • I understand why you asked the question. Journalists often use the word in this way in these contexts, but it is the context that adds the implication. Isolating the first sentence demonstrates that, in my opinion. Some useful examples can be found (and parsed) here google.com/… to derive some conclusions as well.
    – GetzelR
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 2:57
  • The "News" subsection has examples as well (google.com/…). At least 7/10 imply care and precision, not deceit. For posterity, here are a couple: (cbssports.com/nfl/news/…, thedailybeast.com/…)
    – GetzelR
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 3:07
  • Also, would you say that considered (even in the sense of hedge) has implications of prevarication or dissembling on its own or only in context?
    – GetzelR
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 3:11
  • Only in context. The 1906 reference is most interesting: > Hence he solved his problems and parsed his words, all the while pondering the terms culture and character.
    – sam
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 3:21

On reading it, I suspect that it's a nonce usage of the word. In the technical sense, for a listener to parse an utterance, so the theory goes, they take acoustic image and convert it into a syntactic structure with a specific meaning (call this sense 1). Though all speech must be parsed, in non-specialized use you only say that a listener parsed something when it was a complex statement that could be misinterpreted (call this sense 2).

As the phrase is used in the quote, it seems to mean that Cohen speaks in a way that you have to "parse"-2 what he is saying.


William Safire (1998):

"I am not going to parse the statement," Press Secretary Michael McCurry insisted when reporters pressed him for the meaning of "improper" in a Clinton disclaimer of having an "improper relationship." […]

The extended meaning of parse, as McCurry and his tormenters have been using it, is to analyze critically, the current British usage, to which is added the American connotation of to examine too minutely or laboriously.

I think it's possible that the sense of examine (words) too minutely has been extended to use words too minutely (in a formulation).


2 synonyms for the price of one!

...given Cohen is a lawyer and has carefully laid-bare and interpreted his comments throughout this situation.

http://www.dictionary.com/browse/parse http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/parse

  • Neither of those definitions (of which the second is the one the question specifically rules out) makes any sense in the context given here. Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 21:52

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