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I see this grating usage of on behalf of all the time though I believe the speakers/authors usually mean on the part of. Just this morning I'm reading the news and I spot it again, except that this time it's coming from a professional source in a public legal context where you'd think they might be more likely to get it right and so I'm wondering if perhaps I've been wrong about myself all this time.

"For now, I will assume that based upon your comments, there is no interest on behalf of either the City of Phoenix or Maricopa County in furthering the past partnership (with) the Diamondbacks. Your candor with respect to this issue will cause us to move forward in a different direction."

http://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/ej-montini/2016/08/08/montini-arizona-diamondbacks-maricopa-county/88422616/

Is this actually correct usage? Any thoughts on the confusion? This reminds me of dependent vs dependency, comprise vs compose and even bring vs take. It's certainly not unprecedented for people to be confused about asymmetrical relationships.

I don't see this being connected to on behalf of and in behalf of but I throw this in for completeness:

https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/on_behalf_of

And as evidence that I'm right, this source says they aren't synonymous:

http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/wrtps/index-eng.html?lang=eng&lettr=indx_catlog_b&page=9v1hfkP9n1Rc.html

Sadly nothing in the quoted text strikes me as elegant prose in the first place so maybe my doubt is unfounded and this error is even more common than I realized.


Edit

Based on the first answer below I think I need to add to my question. First I want to address why I'm not satified with Max Williams' answer.

In my mind the city/county is capable of having interest. I think it's pretty common to personify companies and governments and all kinds of things so I don't think it's ultimately significant that there's an actual third party representative here in the middle of the conversation. I do suspect it's part of the reason there is apparently confusion about the usage though.

Taking Max's examples I think that grammatically those statements are different:

1a. She expressed interest on behalf of the city.

1b. On behalf of the city, she expressed interest. (Equivalent to 1a.)

...and...

2a. There is no interest on behalf of the City Of Phoenix.

2b. On behalf of the City Of Phoenix, there is no interest.

2c. Speaking on behalf of the City Of Phoenix, I can tell you there is no interest.

In the first sentences the phrase on behalf of the city is a modification of the verb expressed, or of the entire sentence depending on how you want to parse it. That's how I interpret it anyway. In the second it clearly appears to be a modifier of the noun interest. I guess I'm contending that people have arrived at sentence 2a by working backward from 2c.

It's not the interest that's "on behalf" it's her acting as agent in expressing it. When you attach the phrase to the wrong word it no longer makes literal sense to me though perhaps it has become idiomatic. Again I can see this as creating confusion for some people and possibly where the line started blurring.

My citation didn't make it clear that the letter was directed to County Supervisor Andy Kunasek. As far as I know, as a county official he has no capacity to act as an agent of the city too. I noted the word assume in a comment. I guess in the backstory there's probably no need to assume anything since Mr. Kunasek has already been pretty vocal and even later the author uses the word candor.

It's clear to me that while the letter is directed immediately to Mr. Kunasek and the assumption based on his own words, the statement I will assume upon your comments, there is no interest on behalf of either the City of Phoenix or Maricopa County... cuts past his agency to speak the decision-makers themselves. As I've already pointed above interest on behalf of doesn't make literal sense unless you contort yourself to make it fit. I don't want to belabor this because my question was really not intended to be about this.

So let me cut through that complication and rephrase it. If I walk up to my friend today and say this it would be absurd to me:

I read a news article today and I'm really worried about us losing our baseball team. It said there is no interest on behalf of either the City of Phoenix or Maricopa County to work with the Diamondbacks organization and keep the team here. (Wrong)

I read a news article today and I'm really worried about us losing our baseball team. It said there is no interest on the part(s?) of the City of Phoenix or Maricopa County to work with the Diamondbacks organization and keep the team here. (Right)

Let me give you the more common scenario that I hear on the street. I hear it all the time but the article finally gave me a concrete example to cite.

Recently I speaking with a coworker. As it happens this lady is very prone to misuse of many other English expressions and it does at times make communication harder. We were talking about something related to a mistake that a client had made and while I don't remember it exactly she referred to it as something like an "error on their behalf" when it was 100% clear that we were talking about blame -- not any kind of Monopoly-esque bank error in their favor that made them the benefactors of a net positive.

Does anybody agree with that or am I entirely wrong?

  • You have a source that says you're right, so what do you want from us? The best answers on here use sources, but there's not much point me copying your source and using it as a basis for my answer. – AndyT Aug 9 '16 at 15:27
  • @AndyT That source is the Canadian government. I don't think this would be the first time that supposedly authoritative writing advice was discredited by linguists. – shawnt00 Aug 9 '16 at 15:32
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I think it would be easier and simpler to simply say "from", and the author is falling into the flowery prose trap so beloved of people trying to look "official".

However, I don't think the usage is incorrect. A city (a literal collection of buildings) or the city government (an abstract entity) can never say yes or no - anyone working for the city is a representative for the city, and they therefore do things on behalf of the city.

Let's say that someone goes along to the meeting with the Diamondbacks, or whatever, to represent the City of Phoenix. The Diamondbacks representative says "Are you interested?". At this point, if the rep says "Yes", then she has expressed interest on behalf of the City of Phoenix". If she says "No" then it follows that there is no interest on behalf of the City Of Phoenix.

  • I can see your angle on the representative thing but I'm not convinced. Note the word assume in there for one, which kind of already acknowledges the intermediary. – shawnt00 Aug 9 '16 at 12:55
  • 1
    I don't see what difference "assume" makes, sorry - can you expand on that? – Max Williams Aug 9 '16 at 13:00
  • Assume doesn't acknowledges only that there's not a definitive. I agree that on behalf of appears correct because the speaker is speaking for/representing many that may not have voiced a specific view. – Jesse Williams Aug 9 '16 at 15:33
2

The three basic meanings given in http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/behalf are

  • In the interests of a person, group, or principle:
  • As a representative of:
  • On the part of; done by:

The third meaning in BrE contradicts the OP's Canadian English reference asserting that "on behalf of" and "on the part of" are not synonymous.

The third meaning fits very well in the OP's sentence:

... there is no interest on the part of either the City of Phoenix or Maricopa County in furthering the past partnership (with) the Diamondbacks.

In this context, "City of Phoenix" and "Maricopa County" are (in British legal terminology) "legal persons", i.e. entities which have rights and obligations similar to those possessed by humans.

The OP's example would be entirely normal in British English.

"In behalf of" isn't current BrE. To me, it sounds rather like a malapropism for the legal phrase "In the matter of", where "matter" means "something to be tried or proved in a court of law".

Of course, "...neither Phoenix nor Maricopa have an interest in furthering the past partnership..." is a shorter and cleaner way to write this.

  • I had looked into the etymology of the word behalf before posting. At the time I didn't see anything that addressed my thoughts but now I'm seeing that the root of the word is really about "sides" and "halves". So it seems that maybe it can be more of a symmetric relationship than what I was picturing. – shawnt00 Aug 9 '16 at 18:05
  • Perhaps this blurring of the difference between "on behalf" and "in behalf" is where this third sense comes from? – shawnt00 Aug 9 '16 at 18:05
0

I found a dictionary note that hadn't come up in my search prior to posting the question. While this does coincide perfectly with my original thoughts on the topic, I've certainly already learned that it might not be so clear-cut as this.


Usage note

On behalf of is sometimes wrongly used where on the part of is intended. The distinction is that on behalf of someone means 'for someone's benefit' or 'representing someone', while on the part of someone can be roughly paraphrased as 'by someone'. So, the following example is incorrect: another act of apparent negligence, this time not on behalf of the company itself, but on behalf of its banker, when what was meant was there was negligence by the company's banker

on behalf of. (n.d.). Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Retrieved August 9, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/on--behalf--of

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