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Dear Word Detective: I just got an email where someone referred to “on our behalves.” Is this correct? I’d always thought it would be “on our behalf,” even if it’s on behalf of multiple people. — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.
Oh boy. What you’ve asked seems like a simple yes-or-no sort of question, but it isn’t. The story of “behalf” begins with our common English word “half,” which first appeared in Old English, from common Germanic roots, as “half” or “healf.” Today we often use “half” to mean “one of two equal parts of something,” but the oldest meaning of the word in English is “side,” as in the right or left side of a person. In the ninth century this sense of “half” was expanded to mean “one of the two opposing parties to a conflict,” much as we use “side” today. Thus to say that you were “on the half of” someone meant that you were on their side and supported their cause, and phrases such as “on the half of,” “in the half of,” etc., became common English idioms in this figurative sense. “On (or in) the half of” could also mean “acting in place of or as agent or representative of” another person.
This use of “half” to mean “side” eventually died out, but not before the rise of “behalf” in the 14th century. “Behalf” (which had first appeared as “behealfe” in Old English) was simply a combination of “half” in the “side” sense with the prefix “be” meaning “by,” giving us the meaning of “by one’s side, for one’s benefit.” Although the Old English “behealfe” acted as an adverb and a preposition, our modern “behalf” is purely and simply a noun, a thing. And there’s the rub.
As a noun, “behalf” needs a preposition (“on,” “for” or “in one’s behalf”) in order to make sense. There is a school of thought that regards “on behalf of” as meaning “for the benefit of,” and “in behalf of” as connoting representation of another person (“Bob negotiated in behalf of Sam, who was in the hospital.”), but this distinction is not commonly observed. “On behalf of” is the standard form for all uses in Britain, but “on” and “in” are used interchangeably in the US.
Historically, “behalf” has also had a plural form, either “behalves” (modeled on the plural of “half”) or, more commonly, “behalfs.” When multiple parties are involved, I think the question is whether their interests (i.e., “behalfs”) are the same or separate. Ordinarily, you’d say “The attorney appealed to the bank on behalf of Tom and Mary, the homeowners.” But if Tom and Mary were divorcing and had separate lawyers, their lawyers might appeal to the bank “on their clients’ behalfs,” because their interests would be separate. Personally, I’d draw the line at “behalves,” simply because “on one’s behalf” is such a fixed phrase in English that “behalves” looks weird. And obviously, if you have a single entity, such as an athletic team, that is composed of multiple individuals, there’s no need to say “on the team’s behalfs” (or even “on the players’ behalfs,” unless they’re suing each other).