I found a sentence in the song Donna Donna that I am not sure to understand correctly. It is "Stop complaining said the farmer, who told you a calf to be?". I am not sure I understand correctly and how to retell or rephrase the question "who told you a calf to be?" If I am asked to retell it into 2 or more sentences, how would I do? Many thanks.

  • 3
    It just means "Who told you to be [born] a calf?" The order of the words has been changed to fit the metre and rhyme of the verse. Dec 17, 2021 at 17:59

1 Answer 1


"Who told you a calf to be?"

Translates as: "Who told you to be a calf?"

The "to be" is at the end of the sentence/phrase so that it can rhyme with "free". Grammatically correct, but not a common way of speaking.

  • To native English speakers, it would be no problems. But to me, I am confused if I link the question in the song with any questions in English that have exactly the same form, for example "who gave you a nut to eat?"
    – Ng.
    Dec 17, 2021 at 18:14
  • I only half agree with @jim I think this sentence is actually incorrect grammar. It is an ungrammatical reordering of a sentence to make a rhyme. We can guess the meaning but that doesn't mean it follows any grammar that I'm aware of. On the other hand, "Who gave you a nut to eat?" is a completely grammatically correct question. It isn't analogous to "Who told you a calf to be?" The big difference is that "gave" has two objects.
    – James K
    Dec 17, 2021 at 18:27
  • I was aware of the number of objects in my example but not very sure that "say" can take only one object and the grammar there.
    – Ng.
    Dec 17, 2021 at 18:37

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