A Word, Please
Tackling the tough questions
Do good things come to he who waits? Or do good things come to him who waits? Ask a thousand people and you’ll get somewhere between 999 and 1,000 bewildered looks.
It’s a tough question. You need not one but two grammar concepts under your belt to figure out the answer. You need to know about prepositions. You also need a solid understanding of relative pronouns.
Prepositions include “to,” “with,” “at,” “from” and many similar words that show a relationship between a noun or pronoun and some other element in the sentence.
In “Give the knife to Joe,” the preposition “to” has the noun “Joe” for its object. In “Give the knife to him,” a pronoun does the job. Either way, it’s called the object of the preposition.
Certain pronouns come in two forms: subject and object. “I” and “me” are an example. They mean the same person, yet we use “I” when we need a subject for a verb and “me” when it’s the object of a verb or preposition. “I like cake, but cake doesn’t like me.”
“He” and “him” work the same way. “He” is the subject of a verb and “him” is the object of a verb or preposition. “He receives lots of mail. The mail is addressed to him.”
Imagine what would happen if you put “he” after “to” in that last example: “The mail is addressed to he.”
Anyone can see that’s wrong. This same natural instinct gets us the answer to our original question. Do good things come to him? Or do good things come to he?
Obviously, it’s “him.” The pronoun “to” demands that its object be in object form. “He” isn’t an object. “Him” is. So there’s our answer.
But in our original example, the stuff that follows, “who waits,” throws people off from this otherwise intuitive conclusion.
“Waits” is a verb, which brings up the question: Doesn’t it need a subject? A subject like “he” as in “he waits”?
Here’s where an understanding of relative pronouns is crucial. The relative pronouns, which include “who,” “that” and “which,” can pair up with a verb to do something surprising: modify a noun. In other words, this clause acts as an adjective.
Look at “The man who scowls is walking this way.” The main clause is “the man is walking.” But in the middle we have “who scowls,” which is called a relative clause because the relative pronoun “who” works with a verb to form a clause. And relative clauses describe nouns. In this case, the relative clause tells us something about the man. It offers a little extra description for the noun — just as an adjective might.
In our original sentence, “who waits” is a relative clause describing a pronoun: “him who waits.” That little verb, “waits,” doesn’t need a “he” as its subject because it already has a subject: “who.” Together, “who waits” works as a single adjective that doesn’t affect the word it modifies: him.
So good things come to him. Adding on “who waits” doesn’t change that because “who waits” is a self-contained unit. Its verb already has a subject. There’s no need to worry about whether “him” should try to do the job.
All this might remind you of another expression: He who laughs last laughs loudest. This seems to contradict our lesson. After all, this one has a subject pronoun, “he,” modified by a “who” clause.
But the “he” is correct because it’s the subject of a verb: the second instance of the word “laughs.” “He laughs” is the main clause and “who laughs” is inserted in the middle of the main clause, where it’s working as an adjective. Once you see that both “laughs” need subjects, figuring out why “he” is right here is as simple as understanding that you’d never say “him laughs.”
June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com