Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



shameless pleading





Behalf / Behalves

Thanks for your help. Now go stand over there.

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).

7 comments to Behalf / Behalves

  • brig


    Thank you for your thorough explanation. I especially appreciate that you’ve delved into the etymology.

    However, I believe that you have made an error toward the end, regarding “in” vs. “on” behalf. I think you have switched the prepositions, meaning that “on one’s behalf” connotes representation and “in one’s behalf” connotes benefit for another party.

    I agree with The Grammarphobia Blog, which I found very helpful but without the etymological background that you included. The following is a quote:

    “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.).”

    yours in specificity,


  • Muz Musgrove

    Oh dear. An enquirer asks a perfectly reasonable question and answered, not by someone trying to help, but by an out and out nobhead who wants to illustrate how clever he is !

    I’m 68 and have NEVER been inclined to make such comment !


  • Muz Musgrove

    Forgive me…. I referred to “one” nobhead.
    I’ve now read the first comment.
    I now amend my comment to ‘two’ nobheads”

    Knowledge is one thing. The inability to share it is sad beyond belief.

    Let’s hope to heaven that they’re not schoolteachers. Their pupils will prefer to open a vein than subject themselves to education of that ilk

    Muz….SE England.

  • F.A.O. Muz Musgrove:
    For a 68 year old, I would have hoped that you would show a modicum of intelligence and acceptance of other people’s differences, rather than being
    a) extremely judgemental, and,
    b) extremely rude and derogatory!!
    Allow people their Passions!!
    And if you can’t manage to offer “Constructive Criticism,” only Abusive Language, then I suggest that you stick to watching the Telly, or whatever other non invasive activities you enjoy!
    Also, you wrote that you were 68, and have NEVER been inclined to make such a comment, but yet, you seem perfectly fine about using Slanderous Language like “nobhead!!” Unbelievable!!
    In some cultures, the more “mature” someone is, the more “wisdom” they have! Hmm!

  • Steve MacLean

    I think nobhead should be spelled, “knobhead” or “knob-head”. :-) Also, I think Behalf’s plural is behalfs, like beliefs … instead of believes.

  • Kim Ward

    Thank you for your work on our behalf.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!