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There was a farmer had a dog,
and Bingo was his name-o.

From these words alone (so, without appealing to different versions, translations, likelihoods of names, etc.), is there some way to decide whether the name Bingo applies to the farmer or the dog?

I've actually met an Irish farmer (nick)named Bingo and a Kiwi dog named Bingo. I guess my other question is: am I the only one who wonders about this when hearing this rhyme?

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    No. By convention, most people aren't named Bingo. So, it's likely that Bingo is the name of the dog. And the placement of the pronoun puts it closest to dog. But that's not a given. – Jason Bassford Nov 29 '18 at 18:35
  • I was at school with a Bingo Martin. He runs a pub in Shropshire now. (Bingo Martin's real name is Brian.) – Michael Harvey Nov 29 '18 at 18:45
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    This question made me laugh. I always assumed Bingo was the dog, but it really isn't clear. Thank you, English! – Robusto Nov 29 '18 at 20:41
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    From those words alone, we don't know if had means "owned" or "ate". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 29 '18 at 21:05
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    @MichaelHarvey: Believe me when I tell you that I changed "had sex with" to "ate" when my better angels took over. :) – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 30 '18 at 0:28
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In some sentences, it is not possible to determine the antecedent of a pronoun with 100% certainty. This sentence is one such example. Usually the determination is based on the context of the sentence. When in doubt, the nearest sensible noun is likely to be the antecedent, but this assumption is not always correct.

In this particular case and adhering to the limitations in your question, I would assume that the dog's name is Bingo based on the proximity of the words "dog" and "his". Unfortunately there is no way to determine definitively whose name-o is Bingo.

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Analyzing this sentence linguistically requires us to ignore the particular name "Bingo" and the particular nouns "man" and "dog", and instead assume that these are generic entities that have the possession relationship, can be named, and are of the correct syntactic gender.

So let us convert this sentence into

There was a Klingon [who] had a brother and Krzakh was his name.

Now, is Krzakh the Klingon or the brother?

I would guess that it is the Klingon. The evidence is not strong, but the subject of the sentence is clearly the Klingon, not his brother, so the new information seems to point at the former. If I wanted to point explicitly at the brother, I could have used

There was a Klingon who had a brother, and his brother's name was Krzach.

I could also use either "and the brother's name" or "and the man's name". These two are parallel structures. But here's the thing; there is no parallel to "and his brother's name" except, well, "and his name". So my intuitive ear concludes again that, if "his name" is used, it is probably the Klingon.

With the actual nouns and names this logic may not work so well anymore, and the sentence can be interpreted both ways, which is unfortunate. If you don't write poetry (or try to amuse your readers in other ways), choose your words carefully to avoid ambiguity.

  • We don't analyse sentences "linguistically" in every day speech, thank God, or we'd all be wondering whether some old lady was called Stripey or her cat. – Michael Harvey Nov 29 '18 at 22:53
  • But wouldn't your parse make the phrase "[who] had a brother" superfluous? Presumably many or even most Klingons have brothers, so this fact does not serve to identify him. If Krzakh is not the brother's name, why is the brother mentioned at all? Is it really helpful to totally ignore semantics like this? – David42 Nov 30 '18 at 0:06
  • Indeed it suggests that not all Klingons have brothers, otherwise it would have been pointless to mention it. Likewise for the dog. – laugh Nov 30 '18 at 19:15
  • @laugh I'm with you on this one. The use of "Klingon" in your sentence draws attention, and the natural assumption is that Krzakh is his (not his brother's) name. We don't know why the brother is mentioned, but presumably he will be relevant to whatever comes next. – Andrew Dec 2 '18 at 16:35

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