On Behalf Of vs. In Behalf Of

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A reader asks,

Is there a difference in the use of these two prepositional phrases? I get mixed up a lot of times. I’d appreciate your clarifying this in one of your posts.

On behalf of” means, “as representing,” and “in behalf of” means “for the advantage of.” People or agencies who act as representatives of others, act “on behalf of”:

The ACLU brought suit against the city on behalf of three residents.


People whose intention is merely to be helpful act “in behalf of”:

The residents along the border collected food in behalf of the migrants.

Merriam-Webster does not draw a distinction between the phrases, but includes both in its entry for behalf:

in behalf of or on behalf of preposition: in the interest of, as the representative of, for the benefit of. Ex. “This letter is written in behalf of my client.”

The OED, on the other hand, deplores such a merger of meaning:

In recent use we often find on behalf in the sense of in behalf, to the loss of an important distinction.

According to the OED, on behalf of means, “on the part of (another),” with the notion of official agency; in behalf of means, “in the interest of, as a friend or defender of, for the benefit of.” The connotation is the notion of interposition.

The Chicago Manual of Style supports the distinction for American speakers in its “Good Usage versus common usage” section:

In behalf of means “in the interest or for the benefit of.” Ex. “The decision is in behalf of the patient.” On behalf of means “acting as agent or representative of.” Ex. “On behalf of Mr. Scott, I would like to express heartfelt thanks.”

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7 thoughts on “On Behalf Of vs. In Behalf Of”

  1. Just out of curiosity, which version of M-W doesn’t draw the distinction? Both the online version and my 10th Ed. Collegiate Dictionary offer this usage note:
    “A body of opinion favors in with the “interest, benefit” sense of behalf and on with the “support, defense” sense. This distinction has been observed by some writers but overall has never had a sound basis in actual usage. In current British use, on behalf (of) has replaced in behalf (of); both are still used in American English, but the distinction is frequently not observed.”

    M-W’s claim that the distinction isn’t reflected by usage is surprising to me.

  2. As we say in Ireland: “you live and learn”. Although I regard myself as somewhat of a grammar snob, I had never heard “in behalf of” before today. I’m fairly sure that this usage is not at all common on this side of the Atlantic.

  3. I don’t think I would notice the distinction, though it does seem to be a legitimate one. I would probably just assume that, “in behalf of” was wrong. Lots of these things are happening lately . “On accident” drives me up the wall.

    I’m never disappointed when I expect MW to be disappointing.

  4. You say that in Ireland? We say that in American, too. Doesn’t John Lennon say, “In behalf of the group and meself, I hope we pass the audition” on the rooftop in Let It Be? Maybe I’m remembering wrong. As we say in America: “What did he say?”

  5. I’m with Brendan…and I’m in the US. I never heard the expression “in behalf of” and would never think of using anything other than “on behalf of.” However, for something like collecting food for migrants, I would just say I was collecting food for migrants. If I’m doing something for someone instead of that person doing it (i.e. I’m representing them, substituting for them), I would use “on behalf of.” In the case of John Lennon’s quip, he is speaking for the group; they are not speaking for themselves (they have allowed him to speak for them). I would say “On behalf of,” and since the comment he makes is kind of low in volume, a bit of a throw-away, and also spoken with a Brit accent, I am hard put to say if he is saying IN or ON.

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