Talk:Donkey pronoun

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Donkey pronoun is a widely used term in the study of the semantics of natural language, particularly by philosophers of linguistics. Google scholar provides more than 100 hits. Hence, it is easy to base this article on reliable sources.

Study of donkey pronouns is providing a lot of insight into subtleties of natural language syntax. The strange term donkey arises from a famous paper using an example sentence refering to donkeys. The term is very useful academically, because everyone knows what phenomenon is being described, but it doesn't beg any grammatical questions, i.e. it allows people to use the same word to describe the same thing, even though they may disagree about other descriptions of that thing.

One very prominent application of research into donkey pronouns is the light they shed on uses of so-called "singular" they in English. In fact, this is an example of a "question-begging" name. Few uses of they in English would be accepted as singular by a consensus of linguistic academics. What the research shows is that such uses are examples of marking indeterminacy (of a great many different types).

I'm looking forward to writing the key sources into the article so this introductory note will become redundant. Cheers Alastair Haines (talk) 04:12, 21 April 2008 (UTC).

Why is this separate from donkey sentence if treatment is to be encyclopedic? --Wetman (talk) 21:34, 22 April 2008 (UTC)
Simple reason, two separate editors wrote articles. I only just found the other article. Both articles need expansion. But they should be merged and expanded into only article, I agree. Since I have only just started work on this, I'll work at merging them. The way I'll do that is to expand this current article, incorporating all the material from the other article.
Donkey pronoun (or anaphor) is the more common term in the literature, but I'm not too fussed about which article ends up being the redirect. Would be happy to hear other suggestions. Alastair Haines (talk) 21:54, 22 April 2008 (UTC)
Just checked Google scholar. Looks like I was wrong, there are more hits for donkey sentence. Merging and redirecting this article to donkey sentence would have the advantage of allowing us to put the original donkey sentence right at the top of the lead, which would really help readers.
I've left a note at the other editor's page, he only created donkey sentence a month ago, so he may still be around to help with merger and expansion. While I'm waiting for him to respond, I'll continue expanding this entry. Looking forward to help and comment from others as we go forwards. Alastair Haines (talk) 03:07, 23 April 2008 (UTC)
A merger after my own heart! I'd do it myself, if I were competent. --Wetman (talk) 05:58, 23 April 2008 (UTC)
LOL, if competence were a necessary condition, I'd give up now! I learn heaps when I try to write. Cheers friend. :) Alastair Haines (talk) 08:48, 23 April 2008 (UTC)

Original research[edit]

This is not going into the article, but just in case anyone involved in studying the question drops by, please comment on my own informal description of how I parse the sentence.

  • Every farmer -- First dimension = entities which are farmers
  • who owns a donkey -- Second dimension = entities which are donkeys owned by each farmer
  • beats it -- Third dimension = time

Quantification is universal over the first two dimensions and "a little more than" existential on the third (i.e. "now and then" is implicit to the reading my intuition gives me for the simple present). The textual triggers are "every" (of course), the subordinate clause form, which introduces a relation and an additional dimension and variable, together with semantic content of "owns" (i.e. two farmers can't own the same donkey at the same time, but one farmer may own more than one donkey, and ownership has non-punctilliar, non-discreet time duration), and semantic content of "beats", most specifically time. Since "owns" already introduces time, beats doesn't "introduce" the time variable again, but rather corefers with the existing time variable.

To my way of thinking, the canonical form of this sentence is farmers beat donkeys, other elements are built on this base in a regular way that language has developed, in order to deal with communicating time dependent features of generic relations between two classes (which needs three dimensions = three variables). These are common enough to motivate regular structures to communicate them. Logical analysis needs to view "owns" as a _relation_ between variables representing the classes. "Owns" in the example is a red-herring, it only serves to relate farmers to donkeys in a very simple way. Almost nothing is lost by the following transposition

  • Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it.
  • All farmers beat the donkeys they own. (step 1, "translation of predication")
  • All farmers beat their donkeys. (step 2, "dummy verb omission")


  • All x that P y Q them
  • All x Q y they P

Hence, logical form: (all x in X)(all y in Y:x P y)(x Q y) as we'd expect.

Please tell me why no one would say this, or who has said it already, and why they are wrong. Alastair Haines (talk) 13:30, 26 April 2008 (UTC)

OK, no need to embarass me. I worked out my own mistake. My "translation of predication" merely swaps one donkey pronoun for another. It does account for (or remove) the issue of the indefinite article as universal quantifier, I think. But that's a drop in the ocean. Alastair Haines (talk) 07:49, 1 May 2008 (UTC)


This article seems to be written for an audience familiar with things like formal logic. To the lay reader, it is pretty much unintelligible. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 22:23, 28 May 2012 (UTC)

The analysis of Donkey sentences is a very technical subject, so it's hard to present in a way that can be understood by someone with absolutely no background in the subject-matter. The same applies to many mathematics, chemistry, physics, etc. articles on Wikipedia. AnonMoos (talk) 00:26, 29 May 2012 (UTC)