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He that is always shooting must sometimes hit. [source]

Question: Is He correct?

A Japanese teacher of English says that it is not normal to use "he" as the antecedent of a relative pronoun, but I suspect that "he" is possible when it refers to a generic person. Even if He is correct, "One" might be better because it is gender-neutral.

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  • 8
    Shouldn't that be " He who....." (not that)? Nov 14, 2023 at 11:23
  • 2
    Many people are saying that your phrase sounds "very formal" also may be missing that "words of wisdom" are very formal and a rhetorically phrased to sound "old" and therefore authoritative. Here, evoking King James-era biblical vernacular adds (undue) depth and "truth" to the statement. Consider how much less profound this similar-meaning phrase sounds: "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut." yet both speak to the virtue of persistence and eventual reward.
    – VoNWooDSoN
    Nov 14, 2023 at 16:26
  • It's "samurai speak". It's "biblical" sounding or "olde-days" sounding.
    – Fattie
    Nov 14, 2023 at 18:37
  • Yes, it's who not that.
    – Fattie
    Nov 14, 2023 at 18:37
  • 4
    Compare with "He who laughs last, laughs longest", "He who hesitates is lost", "He who pays the piper calls the tune" etc. Nov 15, 2023 at 12:37

3 Answers 3

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That example sentence is fine. Compare to the instruction from the Bible in John 8:7, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

But that biblical quote is from the King James translation, which is three hundred years old. To modern English speakers, your example would be more naturally expressed as He who is always shooting must sometimes hit. And the use of the masculine to mean anyone of any gender is far, far less a convention than it was even one century ago. So yes, One who is always shooting… might be better still.

But… he who does remain common in at least a few aphorisms. I have not yet encountered any reworking of He who hesitates is lost.

As @JamesK writes, your example is in a fairly formal style that would not be commonly used in everyday speech… unless, for example, it’s in an aphorism. That’s a context in which that kind of formal (old-fashioned) style can be appropriate because the style itself implicitly helps communicate that the utterance is indeed an aphorism.

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It is highly formal in style, and so not common in general speech. If you were talking, or even if you were writing something you'd not normally say this. Instead you'd use a general noun like "People who are always shooting...". Or you could use a conditional "If someone is always shooting,..."

There are problems using "he" to mean "a general person" (since it seems to exclude "she"). So it is correct English, but I'd advise learners not to copy this example.

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    Another natural way in modern English is with the generic you: “If you’re always shooting, you must sometimes hit.”
    – PLL
    Nov 14, 2023 at 20:40
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    It is clear that it is being used as a proverb, and in a proverb highly formal style is commonplace.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Nov 15, 2023 at 10:24
  • It was not clear before the edit. As a proverb... well I've never heard it, so It can't be a very common proverb. I suspect a "made up" proverb.
    – James K
    Nov 15, 2023 at 20:30
  • That's true, James, but isn't the example supposed to some sort of proverb, not part of 'general speech'? Nov 15, 2023 at 21:36
  • Yes, that's true.
    – James K
    Nov 16, 2023 at 2:52
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That sentence is correct, though that structure sounds either highly formal, dated, or intended to sound dated.

Merriam-Webster's definition of "he" itself includes a relative clause with "he" as the antecedent of a relative pronoun:

2 —> used in a generic sense or when the gender of the person is unspecified
he that hath ears to hear, let him hear

The example sentence is over 400 years old, and just about every other example that comes to mind is a similarly old adage.

The modern way to express this is "One who..."

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    I am fond of saying 'He that was born to be hanged shall ne'er be drowned' about people who seem to narrowly escape too many calamities. Nov 13, 2023 at 10:46
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    I am not a native speaker, but “one who” still sounds quite formal to me, and I would expect “someone who” in normal speech.
    – Carsten S
    Nov 14, 2023 at 11:04
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    @CarstenS "One who", being more formal, is more recognizable as a generic person. "Someone who" will be recognized as generic in the correct context, but being less formal can be confused with a specific someone - "Someone moved my cheese."
    – Kirt
    Nov 14, 2023 at 18:38
  • @Kirt 'One who' is not only 'formal' but decidedly old-fashioned and these days probably only used for a deliberate effect. One who lives in a glass dwelling would be well advised to refrain from throwing stones Nov 14, 2023 at 21:24
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    @CarstenS It is rather formal, but it's modern, and that's all I wanted to achieve. I didn't see any reason to make it less formal.
    – gotube
    Nov 15, 2023 at 3:28

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