Today’s installment of Word War is rather different as we are going to compare two phrases instead of standalone words. So let’s begin with the now clichéd engager: When you are representing your department, do you act on behalf of or in behalf of everyone else? Which of the two expressions is correct? Well, both expressions are established collocations, thus, they are both correct. At the same time, they have different meanings.
On behalf of means “in place of” or “as the agent of,” as in “I am receiving this award on behalf of my entire department” or “On behalf of the entire Philippine government, I apologize for all the inconveniences caused during the 30th SEA Games.” What does in behalf of means then?
The phrase in behalf of means “for the benefit of” or “in the interest of.” This simply means that instead of being an agent to perform the action, you are performing a well-intended action toward the object, which is the noun that follows. For example, “Several local youth leaders have gathered funds in behalf of the fire victims,” which means that the money gathered will be given to the fire victims.
Is there really the need for distinction between these expressions? Merriam-Webster Dictionary does not draw a distinction between the phrases, but includes both in its entry for behalf:
on behalf of or in behalf of
in the interest of; also : as a representative of: “I wrote the letter on behalf of my client.”
Oxford English Dictionary (EOD), however, 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.
Additionally, The Chicago Manual of Style supports the distinction for American speakers in its “Good Usage vs 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 ofmeans “acting as agent or representative of.” Ex. “On behalf of Mr. Scott, I would like to express heartfelt thanks.”
Given the difference in their meanings, it is best to use the appropriate expression that clearly conveys our message. Sure, people might understand what we mean when we use these phrases interchangeably. At the same time, would we risk miscommunication when we can perfectly avoid it by choosing the right word? One trick is to think that in stands for interest, so you can always remember that in behalf of means “in the interest of” a beneficiary.