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What does it mean to be happy on somebody's behalf? Let's say that somebody graduates and I say to this "congratulations, I'm very happy on your behalf", does this mean that I'm happy because this person graduated?

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  • Yes, you've got it.
    – Lawrence
    Mar 17, 2016 at 9:24
  • It can be intended/understood as you suggest, or there can be several less celebratory (ie, ironic) meanings (though usually "very" would not be used in such cases). "Happy for you" is probably a better way to phrase it.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 17, 2016 at 12:01

1 Answer 1

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This expression is fairly common, and you have understood its general usage pretty much correctly, although that common usage is questionable.

It is a misapplication of the idea of ‘behalf’. To do something on someone's behalf is to do that thing because that is what that person or organisation would do if they were present (i.e. you do it in the spirit of representing them), or because you think and hope that this action will benefit them (see Merriam-Webster).

Basically, if you do something on someone's behalf, you do it because they are absent but you are sure that this is what they would want if they were present, and also you respect or care about that view (whether or not you agree with it) sufficiently to want that impulse or principle to be upheld. This can be by prior arrangement (e.g. voting by proxy) or an individual act (e.g. assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand).

I would deliver my racist friend’s vote on his behalf, not because I support it (my own vote would oppose it) but because I respect his right to vote, while he is in hospital.

A simpler, more common and (in my view) more elegant and correct expression for what you describe is, ‘I am delighted [or pleased, or excited, etc.] for you.

Essentially you are then saying that someone else’s good fortune gives you pleasure. ‘Behalf’ does not really come into it.

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