I’m told Carol Fisher Saller of the Chicago Manual of Style, in her new book The Subversive Copy Editor, recounts how she convinced an author that that of him who seeks should be that of he who seeks.
Tsk, tsk, tsk. Ms. Saller! You’ve clearly been staring at this stuff too long! You’ve simultaneously overthought and underthought this one. Overthought because you’re letting your ideas override your ear; underthought because you haven’t properly analyzed what’s going on here.
The mistake – and Saller’s not the only one making it – is the belief that the him (or he) is the subject of who seeks: he…seeks, yes?
No. The subject for the verb seeks is the relative pronoun who. It’s a dependent clause, who seeks (subject plus verb), modifying the word him, which is in the accusative case because it’s not the subject of anything; it’s the complement of the prepositional phrase of him. (You can’t make the complement of a pronoun phrase simultaneously the grammatical subject of a verb. Sentences are nested constructions, as we will see.)
Probably the most common instance of this confusion is with a sentence such as (often exactly as) Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. It’s so common, in fact, that Google hits for “let he who is without sin” outnumber those for “let him who is without sin” by nearly two to one. But those are all hypercorrections based on misanalysis. This isn’t a question of a nonstandard dialect versus a standard one, because this phrase only exists now in more formal English. It’s the very unfamiliarity of it in everyday use that leads people to screw it up.
Let’s take it apart:
The main clause is Let him cast the first stone. Note that the verb here is let; it is in the imperative. In English we don’t have a proper third-person imperative, so we use a second-person of let plus the third person in the accusative case. Thus we translate Qu’ils mangent du gâteau as Let them eat cake. Not let they – the eat, like the cast, is an infinitive. (Note, by the way, that there is no to on the infinitive. The to is not an intrinsic part of an English infinitive, and so interposing a word between it and the infinitive is not really splitting the infinitive – and assertions that it’s wrong are actually baseless in English, an invention on an inappropriate Latin model. The construction is inelegant at times, yes, but not grammatically wrong. But that’s a digression.)
And the who is without sin? It’s a relative clause modifying the him. Relative clauses do not change the syntactic structure of the main clause in which they are embedded; they can always be lifted out and leave the main clause intact. And the reason they can do so is that they have their own subject and predicate. The subject, as I mentioned, is the relative pronoun who.
Now, if the sentence were Let him that he has spoken to… then the modifier of him would be that he has spoken to and the that would be a conjugation introducing the clause with he as subject. (The person spoken to in this case is implied; linguists, when drawing out a tree structure, will indicate a trace of him after the to. If you invert it, Let him to whom he has spoken, you put the to whom in front and you don’t need the that.)
As best I can tell, people get confused on this because of the is following the him. It’s similar to the error where a person sees, say, My futon is arriving, and with it come two pillows, and think it should be comes because of the it before. But it’s the two pillows that are the subject of the verb; uninvert the sentence and you get …and two pillows come with it.
Now, if you have He who is without sin can cast the first stone, is that an error? No; lift out the relative clause and you’ll see He can cast the first stone. In this case, the he is the subject of the verb, and the dependent clause modifies the subject rather than the object.
It’s always good to be in the habit of taking sentences apart to see their structure. Whenever analyzing a sentence, take apart the various bits that make it up and identify the syntactic subject and verb of each clause. That’s syntactic, not thematic. The syntactical roles in a sentence don’t always go with the expected thematic roles. In Let him cast the first stone, the actor is him, but syntactically him is the object, and the cast is an infinitive rather than the inflected finite verb it would be if we just said He casts the first stone.