Good things come to him who waits? Or he who waits?

Recently, I reread something I wrote years ago about “good things come to he who waits” vs. “good things come to him who waits” and then, when I tried to summarize the lesson, I got it exactly wrong. Not only did I misunderstand the grammar, but I misunderstood what my 2016 self was trying to teach me. I just didn’t get it. But I’ll forgive myself because it’s a tricky issue.

The grammatically correct form is “him who waits,” with the object pronoun “him.” That may seem pretty obvious to anyone who understands that “to” is a preposition and that prepositions take object pronouns and not subject pronouns.

Give it to him, not give it to he.

Show it to us, not show it to we.

Tell it to her, not tell it to she.

You know this intuitively. But folks who pay very close attention know that sometimes, there’s an exception. When the object of a preposition or verb is not a single word but a whole clause, that clause needs a subject. In those cases, you can have a subject pronoun sitting right where an object pronoun normally goes.

Give the job to whoever wants it, not give it to whomever wants it.

Whoever is a subject pronoun. Yet here it sits where an object pronoun would normally go because it’s the subject of its own verb: wants.

It’s kind of like “I know he lied.” The whole clause “he lied” is the object of the verb, “know.” The point is, whole clauses can be objects.

In “Good things come to him who waits,” there’s a verb right there, “waits.” And it’s pretty clear who’s doing the waiting: he is. So it seems like the whole clause “he waits” should be the object of the preposition, which would make it “Good things come to he who waits.” But actually that’s wrong because “who” — not “he” — is the subject of the verb “waits.”
“Who” is a relative pronoun in our sentence. Relative pronouns — that, which, who and whom — head up relative clauses.

The cat, which was meowing, was gray.

The dress that caught my eye didn’t come in my size.

There’s the man whom I love.

There’s the man who loves me.

Relative clauses have a surprising job. They modify nouns. They’re basically adjectives. In “the cat, which was meowing,” the “which” clause modifies the noun “cat.” That makes the whole clause an adjective. In “the dress that caught my eye,” the “that” clause modifies the noun “dress.” Again, an adjective.

In “good things come to him who waits,” the relative clause “who waits” is also an adjective. So what is it modifying? The pronoun “him.”

In our sentence, the true object of the preposition is in fact the object pronoun “him.” The verb that comes after “him,” “waits,” already has its own subject, “who,” and together “who waits” is working as an adjective.

This isn’t just my analysis. Experts agree. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, for example, cites the following sentence as an error: “Any contact with Flora would have to include he who was keeping an eye on her.” That’s wrong, Fowler’s says. It should be “include him” because “him” is the true object of the verb “include.”

Of course, when a grammar rule is this complicated, no one’s expected to get it right. So I’ll forgive myself when I forget it all over again in the near future.

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