Plural of "behalf'?
December 8, 2009 1:17 PM   Subscribe

Quick grammar/usage question. Which is the preferred usage: "I'm buying this property on their behalf," or "I'm buying this property on their behalves."

The former seems right to me, and I'm surprised that "behalves" is even a word (according to the 1986 unabridged Webster's in my office, it is). My usage guide is silent on the issue. Any thoughts?
posted by crLLC to Writing & Language (16 answers total)
Former definitely. Although they are two people, they only have one collective interest that is being represented - the purchase of the property.
posted by Abiezer at 1:20 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To clarify: I could revise as Stoneweaver suggests, but I'm still interested in knowing if there's a preferred choice between "behalf" and "behalves."
posted by crLLC at 1:27 PM on December 8, 2009

Both "behalfs" and "behalves" are words I've seen used, but in common usage they're very rare, so I would stick with "on their behalf".

A quick Google usage check:
"on their behalves": 352,000 hits
"on their behalfs": 87,900 hits
"on their behalf": 36,000,000 hits
posted by Paragon at 1:28 PM on December 8, 2009

Behalf. If you hadn't cited Webster, I would have doubted that "behalves" was even marginally cromulent. The OED gives "behalfs" as an obsolete plural from the 16th century and doesn't mention "behalves" at all.

Certainly I don't just prefer your first option -- I think it's the only possible choice.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:33 PM on December 8, 2009

"I'm buying this property on behalf of Satan and all his minions' would still be right (and very wrong), wouldn't it?
posted by Abiezer at 1:34 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which I just received today for my birthday and was recommended by Language Log as one of the only decent books available, includes a reference to "on behalf of the authors" with no comment. The only controversy they suggest is "in behalf" versus "on behalf," with the latter as the more common modern usage.

I have a suspicion that "behalves" may be used more in legal documents; e.g. "the Wife and the Husband and any persons acting on their behalves are strictly prohibited from..." (text of Mills-McCartney family court settlement). But then again, there's also a sense there of acting on their individual sides, rather than collectively. "On behalf of the authors," although there's no more context, is probably a collective reference.

Sorry, just some random, non-authoritative feedback.
posted by wintersweet at 1:39 PM on December 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

"their behalf" is correct.

It refers to a single "behalf" that belongs to both of them.
posted by mkultra at 1:39 PM on December 8, 2009

The online version of the OED has "behalfs" and "behalfes" as plural forms; however, it also notes that these were only current in the 16th & 17th centuries. "Behalves" does not appear in any entry. By contrast, the entry for "half" lists "halves" as a plural form used from the 14th century onward.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:41 PM on December 8, 2009

Though, I suppose there's an argument to be made that, in the unlikely situation that you were buying the property pursuant to the independent and unrelated wishes of two separate people, you could legitimately refer to "their behalves".
posted by mkultra at 1:43 PM on December 8, 2009

FWIW, "Webster's Dictionary" doesn't really mean much.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:53 PM on December 8, 2009

my first thought lines up with mkultra's unlikely case: you'd only want the plural if it's in some sense separate transactions, but more likely you'd also need plural properties to buy on their (plural) behalves.
example, "I bought the tire for their car" is good, and "I bought the tires for their car" is good, and "I bought the tires for their cars" is good, but "I bought the tire for their cars" runs into logic issues of putting one tire on multiple cars. Maybe we don't run into "behalves" much because it's not a common situation, but it's still valid in a special case.
posted by aimedwander at 1:58 PM on December 8, 2009

Is behalves not a false retronym?
posted by A189Nut at 3:44 PM on December 8, 2009

"Behalves" is not a word. Go with "behalf."
posted by squorch at 5:54 PM on December 8, 2009

This is a singular "their," in that you're referring to a singular, collective interest. In fact, that's an easy way to check the usage: I'm buying this property "in their interest." Not "in their interests." Etymologically, you're standing beside them as a group, not as each individual.

Also, "behalves" looks weird and wonky.
posted by klangklangston at 9:02 PM on December 8, 2009

posted by bunny hugger at 6:16 AM on December 9, 2009

I concur with Abiezer and most of the posters above. "On behalf of" means in the interest of or for the benefit of a particular party. It doesn't matter if a party is an individual or a group, you're still acting on their behalf if they're acting as a party in a transaction or negotiation, or they have a single set of interests you're representing.

I do have an old edition of Webster's that lists the plural "behalves" as a word. But to use it, you have to have to be referring to two or more parties with separate interests, as in wintersweet's example.

Another note: The same old Webster's lists "on behalf of" as a fixed phrase used as a preposition, like "outside of" and "on top of." Nouns that make up part of phrases like this can't be changed to plural; the whole phrase acts as fixed unit. You can't say "They negotiated on behalves of their clients" just like you can't say "He put them on tops of the tables" or "They ran outsides of their houses."

You can (or could) say "on their behalves" or "They each negotiated on the behalves of their respective clients," because inserting "their" or "the" treats behalf as regular noun, instead of just part a compound preposition. But only if you are actually referring to different parties with different interest, not a single party made up of more than one person.

In other words, "behalves" is a word. (But so rare it sounds funny.) And your initial intuition about "on their behalf/behalves" was right.
posted by nangar at 11:47 AM on December 9, 2009

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