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I know the expression 'on (someone's) behalf' usually reads or is understood as 'instead of someone' but I'm wondering if it's possible for it to have a benefactive reading, that is, if it can be used to express one has been benefited by somebody else's action. Can anyone help me?

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As in, using "I did that on Ivan's behalf" to mean "I did that to benefit Ivan"? –  Andrew Leach May 18 '13 at 18:48
    
It's generally benefactive; you can't do something evil on behalf of the person it harms. It comes from the same root as half, meaning "(by the) side", so someone doing something on your behalf is at your side, or as we say it nowadays, they have your back. –  John Lawler May 18 '13 at 18:52
    
Yes, @AndrewLeach Leach, that's exactly what I mean –  setempunctata May 18 '13 at 19:02
    
@JohnLawler, I see your point, I mean if the expression can ever be understood as benefactive without it having the meaning of someone doing something instead of you. –  setempunctata May 18 '13 at 19:28
    
The way I see it, the question is asking for the exact opposite thing than @AndrewLeach's comment ("to have been benefited [sic] by somebody else's action" vs. "to benefit someone"). A clarification wouldn't hurt, even now that there's an accepted answer. In fact, on a more general note, any clarification should always go straight into the question, and never into the comments. –  RegDwigнt May 18 '13 at 20:09

1 Answer 1

up vote 10 down vote accepted

At one time on behalf of and in behalf of meant different things:

on behalf of X meant “in X’s name”, “representing X”
in behalf of X meant “in X’s interest”, “for X’s benefit”

About 1800, however, on behalf of began to be used in both senses; and, no doubt in consequence, in behalf of started to fade from use a couple of generations later.

Google Ngram: enter image description here

In 1887 the OED called this a “recent use” which it regarded as “the loss of an important distinction”; but the language marches on, callously indifferent to the pain of even her most devoted followers. Today you may use the phrase in either sense.

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thank you, very helpful! –  setempunctata May 18 '13 at 20:04

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