I have a query regarding the following statement from this page.

"Only he who gives up is defeated."

Why is "he" embedded in this sentence?

Is it necessary for the sentence to make sense grammatically? Or could it have just been "Only who gives up is defeated"? To me it looks that the writer is referring to a specific person. I know "he" can be anyone since there is no context, but if I wanted to use it, I think people would ask, "Who is he?"

  • Try to think of this he as "a person" or "someone", e.g., Only a person who gives up is defeated. So it not really is a specific person, but rather a specific kind of person. As for the grammar, a sketch of an informal grammatical explanation may go like this: it's not who who gives up, it's he who gives up. Apr 25, 2016 at 2:30
  • You also might try thinking about "who gives up" as an adjective modifying "he" or as Damkerng suggests, "a person". "Only a person is defeated." Which person? A person who gives up.
    – paste
    Apr 25, 2016 at 5:06
  • I was wondering because we have a proverb in Spanish I don't know its origins but it says something like this "Solo esta derrotado quien se da por vencido." I would translate like this "Only is defeated who gives up" or "Defeated is only who gives up" Apr 25, 2016 at 13:59

2 Answers 2


He is used as a generic placeholder for someone, not necessarily male.
Many sayings use this construct

He who laughs last, laughs best.

It's similar to "man" being used for "humanity", e.g. "mankind".
Some will use "(s)he" so as not to be interpreted as gender exclusive.

If you say this to someone, emphasis on the "he" would be expected.

Your sentence can always be transformed

They who give up, are defeated.
They who laugh last, laugh best.

  • that explain a lot, so, do you think that would it be correct if I say something like "only the he who pushes himself the hardest will win the race." ? Apr 25, 2016 at 14:10
  • @ManuelHernandez - Close, but it would have to be "Only he who..." Think of it this way: Who does it? He does it. Not "the he does it"!
    – stangdon
    Apr 25, 2016 at 15:48
  • @stangdon Oops! That was a typo as I was thinking to type "Only the one" but thanks for pointing that out. Apr 25, 2016 at 16:06

There are (mainly) two types of relative pronoun, one which needs an antecedent (such as who, which, whose, that, etc) and the other which doesn't (such as what). The subjective relative pronoun "who" must have an antecedent when it is used in a subject of a sentence. In other words, "who gives up is defeated" is not grammatical as there are two verbs where there is supposed to be only one verb.

Using "he", "those" or "anyone" as an antecedent can solve this problem.

He who gives up is defeated.
Those who give up are defeated.
Anyone who gives up is defeated.
* They who give up is defeated.

Note: "They" is rarely used to mean "any person". You should use "those" instead. Using "he" is archaic.

  • Omg all answers are good if I just could mark them all as answer it would be great Apr 25, 2016 at 15:03

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