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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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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo - Especially if the dog looks like this. – J.R. Nov 29 '18 at 21:17
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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.

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  • 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 salutes Monica C 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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original origins of the song make it clear tha the dog was caled Bingo and by the way the farmer was a woman The farmer's dog leapt over the stile, his name was little Bingo, the farmer's dog leapt over the stile, his name was little Bingo. B with an I — I with an N, N with a G — G with an O; his name was little Bingo: B—I—N—G—O! His name was little Bingo.

The farmer loved a cup of good ale, he called it rare good stingo, the farmer loved a cup of good ale, he called it rare good stingo. S—T with an I — I with an N, N with a G — G with an O; He called it rare good stingo: S—T—I—N—G—O! He called it rare good stingo

And is this not a sweet little song? I think it is —— by jingo. And is this not a sweet little song? I think it is —— by jingo. J with an I — I with an N, N with a G — G with an O; I think it is —— by jingo: J—I—N—G—O! I think it is —— by jingo.

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  • Why do you say "the farmer was a woman"? It goes on to say, "The farmer loved a cup of good ale, he called it rare good stingo". It sounds to me like the farmer's pronoun is "he". – Mike Feb 21 at 18:19
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Context is king. Whenever a line doesn't make sense or is ambiguous, consider the wider context.

There is a modern version of this child's song which doesn't say much more beyond the lines you quote, but an earlier known version of the songs says:

The farmer's dog leapt over the stile,
his name was little Bingo

In this example, it is quite clear that the farmer's dog is called 'Bingo', as he is the only subject.

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Unfortunately, we have been led to believe that Bingo is the name of the dog, but the truth is, it is actually the name of the farmer.

Here is why:

  1. Fact: The song goes like this: "There was a farmer who had a dog and Bingo was his name - o."

  2. Fact: When you address an animal, if they are not related to you, you refer to the animal as it, not him or her. Definition: An animal is referred as “it” unless the relationship is personal (like a pet that has a name). Then it's OK to use “he” or “she” when referring to the animal.

  3. Therefore, assuming that the person singing it is not related to the dog, such as you or me, then we are referring to the farmer. Hence, Bingo is the name of the farmer.

Hope this is clear. If you have any other input, please feel free. I love a nice debate.

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