The Grammarphobia Blog

Behalf time

Q: Here’s a sentence in a note from a friend and his siblings about the death of their mother: “For those of you who knew her, on all of our behalves, we thank you for loving our mother.” Is “behalves” correct here? I’d have used “behalf,” but maybe I’m out of it.

A: In modern usage, “behalf” is an invariable noun and has no plural form. The old plural “behalves” is considered obsolete and has been for some time.

It’s labeled “obsolete,” for example, in my 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

If your friend and his siblings wanted to use such an expression, they should have written “on our behalf” instead of “on all of our behalves.” But in fact, no such phrase was necessary.

We don’t usually thank people “on our behalf”; we simply thank them. It’s implied that a thank-you note from several people is giving thanks on behalf of all the writers.

Now, if the writers had been thanking people on somebody else’s behalf, then a “behalf” expression might have been appropriate.

For example, a son and daughter may be writing thank-you notes for their newly widowed mother, who’s too ill to write them herself.

They might write: “We’d like to thank you on our mother’s behalf for the lovely flowers you sent to Dad’s funeral.”

But back to “behalves.” Right or wrong, the obsolete plural is still alive and kicking in legal terminology.

We found this passage in a petition filed in a privacy lawsuit against AT&T in the state of Illinois:

“Plaintiffs Terkel, Currie, Geraghty, Gerson, Montgomery, and Young bring this action on their own behalves and on behalf of a statewide class of all individuals who ….”

And here’s another example, from a legal website:

“The women asked that the court issue the injunction not just on their own behalves, but on behalf of all women in Massachusetts.”

And yet another, in reference to a suit in Texas:

“Plaintiffs have filed suit on their own behalves and on behalf of all similarly situated employees.”

It’s understandable that in a legal document, it might be necessary to make clear that the petitioners have separate interests (or “behalves”).

But legal language is one thing and real English is another. It ill behooves us non-lawyers to use “behalves.”

On a related subject, people sometimes ask us whether the proper usage is “in behalf of” or “on behalf of.” Both are correct, but traditionally they’ve been used in different ways – at least by sticklers.

We wrote a blog item about this nearly four years ago. As we explained then, the traditional meaning of “in behalf of” is “for the benefit of” or “in the interest of,” while “on behalf of” is supposed to mean “in place of” or “as the agent of.”

Here’s an example: “The Red Cross was given a donation, on behalf my family, to be used in behalf of Haitian relief.”

But that old distinction is going by the wayside (if it isn’t gone already).

In Britain, the sole, all-purpose version is “on behalf of.” Both the “on” and the “in” versions are still used in the US, but most Americans now use them interchangeably, ignoring the traditional difference.

This is according to The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3d ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

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