Behalf: In or on?

I recently ran across a usage issue that astonished me, because I don’t remember having encountered it before. AHD (s.v. behalf) gives a good summary:

Usage Note: A traditional rule holds that in behalf of and on behalf of have distinct meanings. According to this rule, in behalf of means “for the benefit of,” as in We raised money in behalf of the earthquake victims, while its counterpart on behalf of means “as the agent of, on the part of,” as in The guardian signed the contract on behalf of the child. But as the two meanings are quite close, the phrases are often used interchangeably, even by reputable writers. Statistically, on behalf of is used far more frequently than in behalf of, and in fact the Usage Panel prefers on behalf of for both meanings. In our 2004 survey, 87 percent of the Panel preferred on behalf of in the sentence The lawyer spoke to the media (in behalf of/on behalf of) his client, conforming to the traditional rule for using on behalf of. But some 75 percent also preferred on behalf of in the sentence After sitting silently as one complaint after another was raised, he finally spoke up (in behalf of/on behalf of) his kid’s coach, where the speaker is less of a spokesperson than an ad-hoc defender, and so the meaning “in defense of, for the benefit of” is a better fit, and the traditional rule therefore would require in behalf of. All this suggests that on behalf of may be generally supplanting in behalf of.

I thought I knew all the usage battles, but this was new to me. As far as I can recall, I’ve never even seem “in behalf of” (though I must have on occasion, and simply not registered it); I was certainly unfamiliar with the purported distinction. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has a section on it, ending:

Conclusion: the OED shows that the “agent” sense is older; the “benefit” sense — presumably because your agent should be working for your benefit — developed from it in Shakespeare’s time. But Shakespeare himself used both in and on, in this sense, and since in had earlier been used in the “agent” sense, there never was a distinction in meaning based on the choice of preposition. Modern British usage appears to favor on in all instances, but both in and on are used interchangeably in American English.

I doubt that last assertion, even as of 1989 when MWDEU was published, but of course one would have to do a statistical analysis that I’m not about to undertake. At any rate, I’m curious about other people’s sense of this: do you use one or both forms, and are you aware of the alleged difference in meaning?


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I suppose I can’t say for sure I’ve never heard or read “in behalf of,” but I can’t recall it registering. I certainly don’t use it myself and do not recall ever coming across a prescription that “in” is preferable in but only in such-and-such context.

    FWIW the google n-gram viewer for the “American English” subcorpus (although I’m not sure how good the geographical coding really is) shows the “in” form as more common as recently as 1889, but then falling way behind over the course of the 20th century, with the “of” form being >25x more common by 1999. In the “British English” subcorpus, the “on” form moved into the lead in the 1820’s and was >60x more common by 1999.

  2. I’m glad I’m not alone, and thanks for doing a little corpus work!

  3. Fowler doesn’t mention in behalf at all. He does write that “behalf and behoof are liable to confusion both in construction and in sense.” I am blessed in never having had to face that embarrassment.

  4. Garner, predictably, says “stalwart stylists continue to distinguish the two” (in and on).

  5. Quirk et al. mention both in lists of similar constructions, but without explaining the meanings. They mark in behalf of as AmE. CGEL writes “on/in behalf of” throughout, except for one example of the on- variety. Longman’s doesn’t mention in- at all.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Actually, the trendlines crossing and the “on” form becoming more common in AmEng does seem to match up temporally with the decline of the Surely no coincidence? Didn’t know there were any left but Garner must move in different circles than I do.

  7. In Gngrams, on- overtook in- in the AmE database around 1880, but around 1820 in BrE. In the English Fiction database, the in- usage has been a lot more common than in the general corpus, until recently.

  8. I have occasionally noticed “in behalf of” and had provisionally classed it as a minor American variant with no difference in meaning from “on behalf of”.

    A separate issue, which I had never noticed in the wild but saw Collins caution against, is that “on behalf of is sometimes wrongly used where on the part of is intended”.

  9. cuchuflete says

    As far as I can recall, I’ve never even seem “in behalf of” (though I must have on occasion, and simply not registered it)…


  10. David Marjanović says

    If I ever saw in, I probably thought it was a typo…

    Edit: in his behalf seems Not Wrong, so I’ve probably seen it. Maybe. Anyway, l’esprit du bouton « publier »

  11. If it was common in 19th century, it also means that everyone who reads books published then is familiar with it. It is actually one of chief differences between English and Russian: we read books published in 19th century very often.

    I remember, several ESL teachers confidently said that “came to him/herself” in the sense of “regained consciousness” is an error.

  12. I’m 53 and a native English speaker. I had never even encountered “in behalf” until just now.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve never come across “in behalf of”; if I did, I think I would assume it was some sort of legalese, but apparently it isn’t, or JWB would know of it.

    Usage guides of the prescriptive persuasion seem to be hostile to the very concept of free variation, so if such a variant is used at all, it wouldn’t be surprising if someone tried to discover a meaning difference, whether there was one there or not. (As with the ludicrous non-restrictive-only* “which” thing, which happily never seems to have caught on in the UK.)

    * Or was it “restrictive-only”? I have little interest in foreign superstitions.

  14. I’d never seen ‘in behalf of’ until moving to the US, and even since then I’ve come across it only rarely. I always took it to be a form of elegant variation that writers such as George Will might use in order to sound more pompous than usual.

    It sounds lawyerly to me, for some reason, and therefore strenuously to be avoided.

  15. I have certainly encountered “in behalf of” a few times, but I (like most native speakers, it seems) generally took it for an error or an archaism. On the other hand, I agree with David Marjanović that “in his behalf” does not sound as bad—although I have no clue why.

  16. Keith Ivey says

    I was vaguely aware of the supposed distinction, so I must have read it in some usage guide at some point. I agree with those saying that the “in” version seems less odd when used with a possessive pronoun.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    US legalese datapoint: The 1971 edition of the Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States has five instances of “on behalf of” and one of “in behalf of.” The current edition has six of “on behalf of” and none of “in behalf of.” However, restructuring and rephrasing and etc etc means that it’s not like the old rule with “in” just had that swapped to “on.” Rather, as near as I can find substantially parallel substance, the old “a member of the bar of this court representing the party in behalf of whom such service has been effected” turned into “a member of the Bar of this Court representing the party on whose behalf service is made.”

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    Further US legalese datapoint. The phrase “in behalf of” appears with some regularity in decisions of the U.S Supreme Court as recently as earlier this year, but in recent decades almost invariably as part of a direct quote from a statute or prior decision or other such authority that would typically be substantially older (although I didn’t check that very carefully). The most recent “natural” use I found outside of such a quote, in a pretty quick skim not guaranteed not to have overlooked anything, was from 1984, when Justice Rehnquist (in a solo decision denying a stay which none of his colleagues had the chance to kibitz or try to copy-edit) referred to the California ballot initiative in question as directing a particular state officer under particular circumstances “to apply directly to Congress in behalf of the state’s voters.” The year before that, the dissent by Justice Stevens in Illinois v. Batchelder referred to “[t]he only paper filed in behalf of the losing party in this Court.”

    Rehnquist and Stevens were born in 1924 and 1920, respectively, so they may have had their prose styles (including in the “legalistic” register) formed in an era when the “in” form was not quite as rare-to-obsolete as it seems to have subsequently become.

    EDITED TO ADD: One might consider the possibility that within the google books corpus recent hits for the seemingly-old-fashioned form are maybe disproportionately likely to be in the context of quotes of older works (and/or from a reprint of an older work whose metadata assigns it to the year of reprint rather than the original year of publication), thus making the ratio appear less skewed than it really is. This point is obviously not limited to the ratio of “on behalf” to “in behalf.’

  19. David Marjanović says

    “on his behalf”: 12.3 Mghits
    “in his behalf”: 28.1 Mghits

    Some of the first hits are discussions of in behalf of vs. on behalf of, so they’re likely hits for both.

  20. “A Study in Scarlet,” A. C. Doyle, Holmes speaking:
    “He had signed it in behalf of himself and his associates, —the sign of the four, as he somewhat dramatically called it.”

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    Going back to the original purported prescriptivist distinction, I might note that it would make especially little sense in the lawyerese-jargon context since lawyers are predisposed to think [ETA: as MWDEU notes …] that agents BY DEFINITION are supposed to be acting for the benefit of their principals — if they’re not, they’re gonna get sued for being faithless and disloyal. The same with a trustee and the beneficiary/ies of the trust, even though that’s not a principal-agent situation. You could put beneficiaries being benefited by some gratuitous do-gooder who has no legal obligation to act for their benefit into a different conceptual box if you wanted to, but that doesn’t seem like the sort of distinction you would feel motivated to mark by using a different preposition.

  22. My reaction was the same as languagehat’s: never noticed “in behalf of” at all, surprised to see it treated as a live issue by usage guides. And here’s something else that surprises me: is “on the part of” a synonym of “on behalf of”? Until half an hour ago, I would have said no, and agreed with the Collins usage note that mollymooly linked:

    on behalf of someone means ‘for someone’s benefit’ or ‘representing someone’, while on the part of someone can be roughly paraphrased as ‘by someone’.

    But — and I wouldn’t have noticed this if mollymooly hadn’t pointed it out — AHD thinks they *are* synonyms:

    on behalf of means “as the agent of, on the part of,” as in The guardian signed the contract on behalf of the child.

    That doesn’t sound right to me, although it could be covered by AHD’s definition of “on the part of” s.v. part:

    Regarding or with respect to (the one specified): Brilliant strategy on the part of Confederate forces ensured their victory at Chancellorsville.

    which I think is a uselessly vague definition, even though the example sentence is exactly how I would use it. I would have said “on the part of X”/“on X’s part” = by X; attributable to X directly; that X is directly responsible for. It may or may not be a benefit; the point is that X did it, as distinguished (set apart) from anybody else on the scene.

  23. I can’t recall in behalf of on my radar screen. Yes, it looks very US-legal. But I’m reminded of people saying on my behalf for what has usually been expressed with for my part (cf. ktschwarz, immediately above).

    I’m reminded also of the noticeable shift, in youngspeak especially, toward in regards to (sometimes with regards to) as opposed to traditional with regard to (or in regard to). The evidence in print shows this tendency as slight; it’s far more apparent in spoken English.


    “on his behalf”: 12.3 Mghits
    “in his behalf”: 28.1 Mghits

    As I’ve pointed out over the years to any who will listen (and many who will not), if the numbers are high Google’s initial reported hits are the wildest of wild estimates, with little weight as evidence.

    You need to cycle through more pages till Google exhaustedly arrives at a more realistic final count. Or easier, attenuate each expression with the same typical extra words. Compare hits for we acted on his behalf (26 hits, from my location) and we acted in his behalf (just one hit or zero hits, from my location). Both strings flanked by quote marks, which risks upsetting the markup here. Heh, switching to a more restricted search (!) in books I get two hits for “we acted in his behalf”: both from US legal records. Unreliable Google.

  24. David Marjanović says

    the noticeable shift, in youngspeak especially

    Oh, like in Proto-Indo-European. 🙂 Back then, *TT clusters were regularly rendered as *TsT because long consonants were outlawed even across morpheme boundaries.

    Unreliable Google.

    Ah, yes, thanks for reminding me. While we’re at it, I feel like I should mention that Google Scholar is not a subset of Google: it routinely finds papers that Google doesn’t, and – for papers stored at as scans at large archive sites – vice versa.

  25. Oh, like in Proto-Indo-European.

    Quite. Nearogeny (<νεαρός) recapitulates palaeogeny.

  26. John Cowan says

    I too was blind to in behalf, much less any controversy about it, although The Sign of Four was an early-and-often part of my reading (and frequent misremembering as The Sign of the Four, which is what I would have written if I were Doyle/Watson).

  27. 66yo Australian here.

    1. I’ve never heard “in behalf” before.

    2. David Eddyshaw “Usage guides of the prescriptive persuasion seem to be hostile to the very concept of free variation”. Good point

    3. Free variation in choice of grammaticised prepositions (“different to/from/than” etc) is probably more common than we think. In my work transcribing the proceedings of the Australian parliament I notice it a lot. “I’d like to talk a bit more about/around/to that issue.” And many others . There’s an interesting question of how unusual the speaker’s choice has to be before we call it a misspeak rather than acceptable free variation.

  28. What a delightfully subtle and trivial distinction.
    Like the nonrestrictive only ‘which’ thing
    Or the ‘due to/owing to’ thing.
    It reminds me of the competition someone ran some years ago “think up a plausible but completely fictitious prescriptive grammar rule.” This is a good candidate.

  29. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Googling “signed on the part of” brings up plenty of examples where an individual is acting as representative for a country or company or similar, where it seems like “on behalf of” would also work. I agree that “on behalf of” would be more usual if one individual is acting for another individual.

  30. Mormon proxy baptism ritual includes the phrase “for and in behalf of (имярек), who is dead”. But I think I do personally prefer “on” for most usage.

  31. Stu Clayton says

    “for and in behalf of (имярек), who is dead”.

    Here’s a question for JWB: what is the legal import of “on behalf and on account of” ? That’s one internet rendering of the German expression im Namen und auf Rechnung von that is used in commercial documents such as orders. However you render it, what does it mean in practice ?

    In 25 words or less, otherwise a learnèd link please.

  32. Rodger Cunningham says

    I remember, several ESL teachers confidently said that “came to him/herself” in the sense of “regained consciousness” is an error.

    That seems very odd to me; I wouldn’t even have classified it as an archaism. But then I spent much of my youth not only reading nineteenth-century and/or British books, but largely learning upper-register English out of them.

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    @Stu. That doesn’t sound like a boilerplate fixed phrase I’m familiar with in American legal jargon, although the original may be current in German legal jargon. You can if you look find a few instances of similar phrasings, most quite old. Here’s an example from an appeal decided in 1933 [the “Sutton” was a tugboat]: “The owner of the Sutton, Hedger, by its contract with the Transportation Company, empowered the latter ‘In the name, on behalf and for the account of the Owner, to negotiate, arrange and enter into any and all contracts or agreements for the regular and proper operation, employment and use, including the charter or hire of the property, or the towage, carriage and/or storage of mails, freights, cargoes, vessels and/or passengers, by, in, upon or about any of the property.’”

    And this from a 1949 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which has been subsequently quoted and/or paraphrased in a number of less antique cases dealing with the same issue of tax law: “Whether the corporation operates in the name and for the account of the principal, binds the principal, by its actions, transmits money received to the principal, and whether receipt of income is attributable to the services of employees of the principal and to assets belonging to the principal are some of the relevant considerations in determining whether a true agency exists.” [Note the absence of “behalf.”]

    So I can parse/grok it if I see it, especially given clues from context, but I frankly didn’t remember having seen it over the course of my career. There are a variety of stock wordings in current AmEng legal jargon to indicate that A’s signature on a document is intended to have the effect of binding B, but in my experience that ain’t one of ’em.

  34. Stu Clayton says

    @JWB: Thanks. I should ask a German lawyer what the legal import is of that German expression. Or maybe I shouldn’t, because I would understand only a fraction of the answer, and there is no Need To Know on my part.

  35. Plus he’d bill you for his time.

  36. David Marjanović says

    The German version says plainly that the one whose name it’s in is the one who pays for it. But of course its meaning as a technical term may be completely different, this is not legal advice, please run away screaming.

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    US law definitely has the concept David M. expresses, that when A signs something as agent for B, and is acting within the scope of the authority granted by B and fully discloses B’s identity, not only is B bound but you can’t sue A if B doesn’t pay or otherwise fails to do what A bound them to do. It’s just that there are a variety of different ways to document such arrangements and there isn’t necessarily a single form of “magic words” that are used by everyone trying to assure that the legal effects of their signature will be consistent with that. Although particular trades and industries may converge on pretty standardized wording for certain sorts of common transactions that are often done by agents rather than directly by principals.

    That said, i would say wording of the general form “A on behalf of B” is less common than “B, by A, its ROLE-OR-JOB-TITLE.” Major exception I can think of is that court submissions will typically be signed A, attorneys for B, even though the body of the document may well commence “Defendant B, by its undersigned counsel A, hereby respectfully submits this blah blah blah.”

  38. This is something I wrote about for Macmillan Dictionary Blog back in 2015 and have seldom thought about since, so rare is the in behalf of variant. Archived link here, since the blog was taken offline this year.

    My post, FWIW, also looked briefly at the etymology of behalf, its wayward sometimes-plural behalves, and the issue discussed by mollymooly and ktschwarz above, which Burchfield raised in his comprehensive revision of Fowler.

  39. From your post:

    On someone’s behalf, etymologically speaking, means ‘on someone’s side’, from an old meaning of half. It emerged in Middle English as a result of blending the two phrases on his halve and bihalve him, both of which meant ‘on [or by] his side’

    I intend to start using that as a counter-peeve: “Oh, you disapprove of that usage, do you? Well, I trust you don’t say ‘on behalf of,’ which is an illiterate blend!”

  40. Now that I think of it, that reminds me of begrudgingly, which has pretty much entirely replaced the good old grudgingly. I deprecate the change.

  41. J.W. Brewer says

    What’s the evidence (corpus or otherwise) for the claim that “begrudgingly” has “pretty much entirely replaced” “grudgingly”?

  42. My own ears. I can’t remember the last time I heard “grudgingly.” If you live in a reality where you’re constantly encountering the latter, I envy you.

  43. J.W. Brewer says

    I will leave the google n-gram inquiry as an exercise for others, but doing ad hoc corpus linguistics in the inbox of my gmail account, I find 13 instances of “grudgingly” against 6 for “begrudgingly.” Significantly, all of the latter were in basically spam-type messages rather than from individual correspondents whom I actually know.


    EDITED TO ADD: I myself appear to have used the adjective “begrudging” in one outgoing email but in my defense it was in a direct quote taken from the N.Y. Times, which I certainly do not commend as exemplifying a prose style or lexical judgment worth emulating.

  44. Gn-grams (FWIW, YMMV, ETC) shows grudgingly being used far more than begrudgingly, by a very large factor, across time and corpuses. Begrudgingly has become more common in the 20th century, and especially in the last few decades, but is still very subordinate.

  45. Then I clearly live in a linguistic hell-pocket.

  46. For me, no two of A “bearing a grudge”, B “grudging”, and C “begrudging” are synonymous: C = A + B. The corresponding adverbs “grudgingly” and “begrudgingly” are likewise distinct, but perhaps either may be pressed into service in place of the unwieldy “grudgebearingly” .

    Remind me to read this back next week; I suspect I may snort in disagreement.

  47. January First-of-May says

    but doing ad hoc corpus linguistics in the inbox of my gmail account, I find 13 instances of “grudgingly” against 6 for “begrudgingly.”

    26 to 10 on the archive of a Discord server I am active in, though the 26 get somewhat of a bump from multiple instances of the specific phrase “grudgingly admits to being awake” all from the same author.

    With a Google search for “begrudgingly” limited to LH, I only get five results and one of them is a complaint about the word; meanwhile “grudgingly” gets about 200, but many of them show “grudging” instead. Of course Google hits are a bad substitute to even ad hoc corpus linguistics.

  48. Oh, I expect “grudgingly” at LH, as I do in edited text; I’m talking about people in radio interviews and the like.

  49. COCA’s spoken division (which includes NPR and all major TV networks) has 47 grudgingly:16 begrudgingly in 1990-2019; but limited to 2015-2019, it’s 5:8.

    Grudgingly also beats begrudgingly in Google hit counts at, but when filtered to the past year (which is *not* reliable), begrudgingly wins 15:5. This is the most recent grudgingly that Google found there:
    September 1, 2023: “more and more office workers are grudgingly trudging back to their cubicles”
    That seems to be scripted, though; maybe you meant only in spontaneous speech?

    So that’s some evidence that begrudgingly has been gaining at the expense of grudgingly, but “has pretty much entirely replaced” is hyperbole.

  50. That seems to be scripted, though; maybe you meant only in spontaneous speech?

    Yes. And I enjoy hyperbole, but I repeat that what I said is true of what I hear (believe me, if I hear “grudgingly” I notice and rejoice) — I can’t answer for COCA’s spoken division or anyone else’s experience.

  51. John Cowan says

    Well, that’s why they call your nation Begrudgeria &mdash although the other English-speaking polities have worse names.

  52. Blooms & Barnacles (podcast): “While begrudge as a verb exists throughout the English speaking world, begrudgery as a noun is peculiar to Ireland. Dermot and Kelly discuss what makes Irish begrudgery a unique phenomena, how it affected Dermot growing up in Ireland, and, of course, how begrudgery influenced James Joyce’s life and writing.”

  53. The German version says plainly that the one whose name it’s in is the one who pays for it.
    Or gets your money. Every time I fill my car, I have occasion to read the text on the pump telling me that the petrol station is selling the gas “Im Namen und auf Rechnung der (Insert name of oil major) Deutschland GmbH”.

  54. David Marjanović says

    Ah. No car, no place to put one in Berlin.

  55. Dave Wilton adds a sic in this 1897 quote….

    Dr. Ruiz’s case is not even as strong as some of the other cases in [sic] behalf of American citizens in Cuba.

    …. but I think “on behalf of” would be no less sicworthy in this case.

  56. The OED s.v. behalf shows both expressions landing in the same year, 1390: “Þe seuen wise þai grette / In þemperours bihelue” and “Þenne seis Seraphe, ‘scheuȝ me myn hache’..‘Haue her-on,’ seis þe white kniht, ‘vppon my bihalue; God sende þe þis’. The key to the matter appears to be the comment “U.S. in later use” attached to the in (the) behalf of quotations, and indeed the last such quotation from a British source is from 1722: “To the Statute-Breakers, I, in the behalf of good King Henry, enjoyn as a Penance, the reading and considering well one Chapter of the Imitation [of Christ]..every Morning before their Coffee.” The converse is not true: there are American quotations of on behalf of up to the present.

    All these are referred to the oldest sense (I.1.a in, I.2.a on) ‘in the name of, as the agent/representative of’. The second sense ‘with respect to, regarding’ (I.1.b. in, 1.2.b on) is more lopsided: in is first found in 1427 and vanishes from the British record in the same year as above, 1722, but on is first seen in 1450 but is not found anywhere after 1697. The third sense ‘in the interests/support of, for the benefit of’ (1.1.c in, 1.2.c on follows the pattern of the 1.*.a senses, in last seen from Britain in Tom Jones (1749) with “She should immediately have interposed in his Behalf.” The fourth sense ‘on the part of’ (no in variant, 1.2.d on) contemned by Collins first lands in 1835. (There are various other obsolete constructions and senses, illa nimis antiqua praetereo.)

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