Here’s what almost all of us do when we read a sentence whose grammar just doesn’t seem quite right: we read the sentence aloud again, ask ourselves if it sounds right, then maybe tilt our head and read it still one more time, and finally come to the conclusion that we’re just not sure—or worse, come to the conclusion that because it doesn’t sound right it can’t be correct.
I witnessed this protocol the other day when a friend asked me about this sentence by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (from his essay “Life Without Principle”): Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it. The wisdom and sanity of the principle aside, what are we do to grammatically with the words him who does it? Those words, and particularly the pronoun him, stumbled my friend, not for the present concern over gender, but for the choice of grammatical case: him who instead of he who? Let’s sort this out.
A great name will not guarantee correct grammar, but in fact Thoreau here (no surprise) got his grammar right. To see why that’s true, let’s begin, as ever, by determining the number of clauses which comprise the statement in order to get our bearings. Thoreau composed a fairly involved complex sentence of three clauses. The first independent clause (do not hire) is an imperative, a direct command to the reader, and so we won’t find the regular subject-verb combination neatly laid out. Except for emphasis or clarification, imperatives in English do not include the subject, and so here we have as a direct and negative direction to the reader do not hire, not you do not hire. After that first independent clause, the sentence moves out with two subordinate clauses beginning, who does your work and who does it.
Now the two subordinate clauses here each begin with the relative pronoun who. The purpose of a relative pronoun is to refer indirectly in one clause to a noun that has been named directly in a previous clause. In Thoreau’s sentence, the two instances of who both refer logically to the noun man in the first clause, and the form each takes (who, not whom or whose) is determined by the use of the relative pronoun in its own clause. This is a master rule in English grammar. Thoreau wrote who does because the relative pronoun who is standing as the subject of the verb does; it is in what is called the nominative case of the pronoun, and another master rule of English is that subjects are in the nominative case.
My friend’s ear alerted him to a potential problem, though, when it heard him in proximity to who. The ear works by association to find meaning in flow and rhythm, and when it registered him who together, it raised the alarm over a potential problem: we say he who, not him who. But the ear is not a logical faculty of human nature; it works connectively, not logically, and so it is neither sensitive to nor sympathetic with all the sectionalizing that grammar and logic require. It serves an equally important but very different function in language, and if we appeal to it where its genius does not apply, we will turn ourselves onto the wrong path in understanding the construction—a logical undertaking—of a sentence.
Hearing him who together conflates two different grammatical sections, and that’s what caused the problem in analyzing Thoreau’s sentence. The pronoun him is a second object of the verb hire, and so missing between the conjunction but and the pronoun him is the verb hire again. Thoreau has employed a rhetorical device called ellipsis, the intentional omitting a word to heighten the point and effect of the statement. To read him who together, then, and appeal to the ear for grammatical warrant is to associate the last word of an elliptical clause (him) with the first word of a following relative clause (who), and that is to cross grammatical boundaries, the very mark of the sectionalizing tendency so counter to the ear, with its sharp attention to sound and rhythm and flow. But therein lies the art of language for writer and reader both: to somehow bring opposites together within the limits which an art imposes. And if we can do that, like Thoreau, we’re really doing something.