I had no intention of writing about Safire again so soon, really I didn’t. I skimmed Sunday’s column with as little attentiveness as possible and moved on to the Ethicist. But two of my readers have drawn my attention to two different passages, and I guess I’ll saddle up and do battle once again.

He begins with his typical roundup of vaguely related terminology, in this case terms allegedly borrowed by bloggers from “the MSM — that’s the superannuated, archaic mainstream media.” These include genuine items like sidebar and spurious ones like this: “Even the reporter’s byline, that coveted assertion of journalistic authorship, has been snatched by the writers derogated as ‘guys in pajamas’ and changed to bye-line, an adios or similar farewell at the end of the blogger’s politely expressed opinion or angry screed.” (Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen or heard the latter term… I thought so. But somebody obviously thinks it’s clever.)

But what my correspondent took particular issue with was this:

A ping is not just the word for a sound anymore. It is also an acronym for “packet Internet gopher,” a program that tests whether a destination is online and can also be the gently noisy notification sent when a blog needs updating or has been updated.

She said:

In the latest “On Language”, Safire informs us that the Internet usage of “ping” is an acronym. It is not. You can read the gory details here [where the guy who created the term says “I named it after the sound that a sonar makes, inspired by the whole principle of echo-location”].

And if you go there, you will find various of his other misunderstandings mocked, which is a good thing; I can’t do all the mocking myself.

My other correspondent was irked by Safire’s closing paragraphs:

During halftime at Super Bowl XL (Extra Large? No; 40), Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones performed “Satisfaction,” their 1965 hit. He pointed out in his introduction to the song that it could have been sung at Super Bowl I, adding, “Everything comes to he who waits.”

That was a verbal malfunction more shocking than a previous Janet Jackson halftime. Because he is the subjective case of the third-person male pronoun, it cannot be the object of the preposition to. The pronoun must be the objective case him. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in an 1863 poem that called up the image of a patient falcon carved in wood, had it right: “All things come round to him who will but wait.”

He says:

He’s contending Jagger was wrong (“more shocking … than Janet Jackson”) to say ‘everything comes to he who waits’ on grounds that the preposition needs the object ‘him.’ I been teaching the youngerns that the clause is the object and the pronoun needs to function the way it does in the clause.

Here’s what I wrote in response:

I checked with my bible in these matters, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and found (at the end of the Pronouns article):

The last of the problem environments mentioned by Quirk et al. is the pronoun that seems to lie between two clauses; this pronoun is often drawn toward both nominative and objective forms by reason of its different relationships to the preceding and following parts of the sentence. Usage is decidedly mixed:

It was she (her?) John criticized — in Quirk et al.

Everything comes to him who waits — English proverb

Just as the ideal of even-handed justice for all can be somewhat tilted toward he who can afford to argue the rightness of his case — Globe and Mail (Toronto), 8 Oct. 1982

I’m against whoever is in office — And More by Andy Rooney, 1982

Fowler, if I’m reading him correctly (he’s unusually vague here), plumps for “him” at the end of the “he” entry (at least, he appears to make fun of the writers who “thanked God they had remembered to put ‘he'” in examples like “The bell will be always rung by he who has the longest purse and the strongest arm”); I can find no guidance in Garner.

Oh, and one minor point—minor, but just the kind of thing you’d think Safire would hate to get wrong: that should be a comma, not a semicolon, in “No; 40.” (Of course, it’s possible that the Times style manual prescribes this bizarre usage, in which case I transfer my mockery to whoever wrote it. That’s whoever, not whomever. I think.)


  1. Well I’ve always enjoyed the Brazilian Portuguese development of using the subject pronoun as the direct and indirect object pronoun of choice, so that we have:
    * (eu) vejo ele and (eu) digo para ele (brazilian portuguese that is the equivalent of saying in english “I see he” and “I say to he” (the subject pronoun is optional because it’s implied by the conjugation))
    instead of
    * (eu) vejo-o and (eu) digo-lhe (european portuguese version of “I see him” and “I say to him”)
    Considering that English can signify all object pronouns solely by position without increased ambiguity (except for third-person reflexive), I propose all subject pronouns should be their equivalent object pronouns.
    He see she, she see they, they see you, I see I, she sees herself, she sees she, you see she, I say to he, she says to I, they say to he, she says to she, she says to herself – I think it’s a winner.

  2. Let’s not forget The Story About Ping.
    Your second correspondent says “the clause is the object and the pronoun needs to function the way it does in the clause”, but my understanding of the traditional analysis is that the clause is “who waits”. “He who waits” isn’t a clause — it’s a noun phrase.
    The object of “to” should be “him”, not “he”, while the subject of “waits” is “who”, not “whom”. So it would be “Everything comes to him who waits.” Unfortunately, Safire is right.

  3. KCinDC: That was my thinking as well, and I think it’s more logical, but there’s no denying that “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” gets almost four times as many Google hits (40.7 k) as “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (11 k). I think the reason we find “he who” in Bible translations is that several hundred years ago – but this is just my impression, so don’t take this as gospel – people seem to have found “he” a more natural stress pronoun than “him,” such that they found it more natural to append a relative clause to “he” than to “him,” regardless of the theta role of the whole “he who <foo>” construct. Nowadays, we see it because “he who” sounds archaic/formulaic, so people leave it intact.
    Hat: I agree with you that “[…] I can transfer my mockery to whoever wrote it” is the correct form, since it seems to me that “whoever” is the subject of “wrote it,” while the complete clause “whoever wrote it” is the object of “(transfer) to.” It makes more sense to decline “whoever” according to its role in its clause than to decline it according to its clause’s role in its sentence.

  4. (And by “theta role” I don’t mean theta role at all, but rather the exact opposite: a noun’s *syntactic* relationship to its verb. What *is* the term for that? I’m sure it’s something obvious, but it’s eluding me.)

  5. michael farris says


  6. Actually, it is possible to have “to he who waits.” English is often enough too concise with its language. Would it not then be merely short for “Everything comes to [the person, ] he who waits.” Awkward, to say the least. I think in Latin it would be rendered, “Omnia ad eum venit qui expectat.”

  7. Ran, has “let he who is without sin” actually been used in Bible translations? Sure, a lot of people say it that way, but is there a translation that uses that language, or even “let him who”? The King James Version has “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
    In any case, LH’s correspondent wasn’t saying they were teaching that “he who” gets more Google hits, but that “the clause is the object and the pronoun needs to function the way it does in the clause”. I’m just wondering how “he who waits” can be a clause. Is “he who” somehow being analyzed as an inseparable unit?

  8. Thanks for posting the link, KCinDC. It’s been a long time since I read that review.

  9. My native intuition says “he” not “him”. And that settles it.
    I said native!

  10. The ‘unto’ is a subtle dig, is it?

  11. The “unto” is Shakespeare.

  12. About ‘PING’… the acronym-as-pop. etymology has always interested me. Recently I heard ‘gnome’ (guarding naturally over Mother Earth) and ‘wharf’ (warehouse at river front). I wonder if the popularity of the acronymic etymology is rather a desire to give key words (and by metonymy, a given profession) an occult or quasi-scientific importance.

  13. Richard Hershberger says

    I too just skimmed Safire this week (and, like LH, I then move on to the Ethicist, who is invariably more interesting and more sensible) but didn’t he also screw up “below the fold” in the blog context?

  14. Safire was mystified about the provenance of “moonbat”. He must never read the Guardian – one of Monbiot’s columns would clue him right in.

  15. didn’t he also screw up “below the fold” in the blog context?
    Yeah, I noticed that too. It’s the Augean stables, I tell you.

  16. Oh dear – I remembered it wrong!

  17. Bye-line may have come from the “MSM”. Check this out: http://citypaper.net/articles/2003-05-15/om.shtml
    It’s also some part of the field in hurling, a sport about which I know nothing.
    Interesting that Safire doesn’t cite a specific appearance of bye-line in a blog.

  18. And furthermore, where does Safire get off claiming that the usage of ping came from the “blogosphere”? Besides pinging network connections, UNIX geeks have been pinging each other (semi-humans though we are :-)) for far longer than there’s been a blogosphere. We “grep” for things that aren’t text too, but evidently grep hasn’t made enough inroads into the language for Safire to be upset about it.
    And I am personally crushed that Doc Technical (see The Story About Ping link from KCinDC above) shelved his copy next to Stevens’ Advanced UNIX Programming instead of next to Writing a UNIX Device Driver.

  19. I meant Stevens’ Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment, she says as she looks at her bookshelf.

  20. Andrew Dunbar says

    Whether “he who waits” is a clause or noun phrase doesn’t matter because it is this entire phrase which is the object of the sentence. “Him who waits” on its own is not grammatical. Logically correct is this:
    (Good things).s come.v to.p (he.s who.c waits.v).n

  21. A bit late to the party, but…
    1. I saw whoever stole my boat.
    2. I saw whomever stole my boat.
    You gotta go with 1. And if memory serves, I once read a consenting opinion (specifically about who/whom, mind you, not he/him) in Fowler or Garner or …

  22. “Packet INternet Groper” (not “gopher”) has indeed been in use almost since the invention of the ping program as a jokey retronym for it, so Safire was almost but not quite entirely wrong. Similarly, “TCP/IP” (Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol), the low-level protocols on which the Internet operates, was once known to ham radio enthusiasts as “That Crap Phil Is Pushing”.

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