Q: The following sentence appeared in the New York Times: “Woe to he who seeks truth therein.” That “he” sounds wrong, but “him” sounds wrong too. If I were the copy editor, I’d say rewrite the whole sentence. What is your expert opinion?
A: We answered a similar question not long ago on the blog, but it’s a slow day so we’ll do this one too
The sentence in the Times should have read: “Woe to him who seeks truth therein.”
In fact, a search of the Times archive from 1851 to the present didn’t find the incorrect sentence.
The correct sentence does appear, however, in the online version of The Ethicist column published in the April 17, 2011, issue of the Times Sunday Magazine.
We didn’t read the column in the physical magazine, so we don’t know if the incorrect sentence appeared in print and was corrected online.
But getting back to that sentence, there are actually two clauses involved.
The principal clause is “Woe [be] to him” and the dependent clause (modifying “him”) is “who seeks truth therein.”
The sentence could have been recast with the nominative “he” if it had read: “He who seeks truth therein will not find it.” As it is, the sentence calls for a pronoun in the object case (“him”).
The correct sentence isn’t that weird. Think of the old proverb “Evil to him who evil thinks” (Honi soit qui mal y pense):
Check out our books about the English language