A reader named Rob wants to know whether good things come to he who waits or whether they come to him who waits. Or so he said in a recent email.
I suspect Rob changed his mind when he got my reply. Because this matter is not for the faint of heart (or the short of attention span).
The grammatical choice is “good things come to him who waits.” But even people who understand why “him” is correct in this sentence may not understand why “he” is correct in “It is he who waits.”
Rob wasn’t sure how to assess the sentence: “Is ‘him’ the object of ‘to’?” he asked. “Or is ‘he’ the subject of ‘who waits’?”
As Rob knows, prepositions like “to” take objects, which are always in an object form like “him” and are never subjects like “he.”
But as Rob also knows, clauses have subjects like “he.” In “He waits,” notice that a subject is doing the waiting. An object form like “him” wouldn’t work here.
Sometimes a pronoun, especially “whoever” or “whomever,” can land in a position where it appears to be doing both jobs at once. Look at “I’ll vote for whoever/whomever supports pothole repair.” Here we need an object of the preposition “for” but we also need a subject for the verb “supports.”
What to do? Actually, in this case a whole clause is functioning as an object. And that clause needs a subject. So the correct choice is “I’ll vote for whoever supports pothole repair,” in which “whoever supports pothole repair” is a whole clause serving as an object of “for.” In these situations, the subject form wins because clauses need subjects.
But Rob’s question deals with a slightly different sentence structure. The difference is that little word “who.” In “Good things come to he/him who waits,” the subject of the verb “waits” is neither “he” nor “him.” It’s “who.” Together they form something called a relative clause, which is really a modifier of a noun or pronoun that comes before it.
The man who eats pasta. The man who wears black. The man whom I love. In all these cases, the who or whom clause is simply shedding more light on the noun “man.” That’s what relative clauses do.
So in Rob’s original sentence “who waits” is a whole clause. The pronoun before it isn’t part of that clause. Instead, that pronoun is the object of the preposition “to.” That’s why it’s “him” and not “he.”
“Good things come to him who waits” is just a more informative version of “Good things come to him,” in which the relative clause is just an optional modifier.
Fowler's Modern English Usage supports this idea, citing the following sentence as an error: “Any contact with Flora would have to include he who was keeping an eye on her.”
Of course, if you wanted to argue for “him who waits,” you could cite idiomatic usage: a Google search nets 271,000 hits for “come to he who waits” but just 114,000 hits with “him.” But syntax favors “him.”
And what about “It is he who waits”? Well, this slightly different structure invokes a special rule: It includes something called a predicate nominative, which is basically the reason you say on the phone “This is she” instead of “This is her.”
The predicate nominative rule is that, whenever you have a form of “to be” followed by a noun or pronoun that refers back to the subject of the sentence, that noun or pronoun is a predicate nominative and takes the subject form. So “it is he” would take he even without “who waits.”
The lesson here is not that good things come to him who waits, but that trivial knowledge comes to him who endures this column.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.