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Just how many ‘behalves’ make a whole?

An obsolete term still has its place in some legal contexts.

This 2013 photo shows the word 'science' on a page of a Merriam-Webster dictionary in New York. 'Science' is the publisher's word of the year.
Bebeto Matthews/AP
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Public discourse seems to be going through a phase (let’s hope it’s just a phase) of general coarsening right now.

This unoriginal observation may explain why my attention was caught the other day by a usage that was almost endearing in its quaintness: “behalves.”

It appeared in a news report of a lawyer who seemed “giddy at the prospect” of using the tweets of the man he was suing against him “on his clients’ behalves.”

The man being sued is a prolific tweeter, and his tweets may work against him. His aides, asked by journalists about how well they’re doing in getting him to restrain himself, responded, in at least one case, with a vulgar, R-rated initialism that made it into the article’s headline. To translate into language I can use here: The aides say they’re “laughing very hard” at the thought of their boss being restrainable. 

So what’s with “behalves”? The usual word is behalf. It means “interest, support, or benefit,” but lives on in just two idioms, which seem to be merging: on behalf of and in behalf of.

The former means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), “As the agent of; on the part of.” A lawyer’s letter “on behalf of” his client is a classic example.

The latter means “for the benefit of” or “in the interest of,” as in “raising money in behalf of disaster victims.” (People who can afford lawyers seem very different from disaster victims, and this thought helps me with the on/in distinction.)

But that distinction is clearly under stress. 

“[A]s the two meanings are quite close, the phrases are often used interchangeably, even by reputable writers,” says the AHD.

In the same vein, Merriam-Webster says the on/in distinction “is frequently not observed.” 

And so what about “behalves”? (Google thinks I must mean “bivalves.”)

The Grammarphobia blog took this one on a while back: “In modern usage, ‘behalf’ is an invariable noun and has no plural form. The old plural ‘behalves’ is considered obsolete and has been for some time.”

The authors add, though, “Right or wrong, the obsolete plural is still alive and kicking in legal terminology,” where “it might be necessary to make clear that the petitioners have separate interests (or ‘behalves’).”

Indeed, a Google News search for “behalves” shows quite a number to be from a quote from a lawyer, or an article based on interviews with lawyers, like the aforementioned “giddy” one.

But Grammarphobia gives clear guidance: “It ill behooves us non-lawyers to use ‘behalves.’ ”

I concur. Separate “petitioners” may well have “separate interests” sometimes. But these times cry out for a stronger, fuller sense of the common interest. Something about “behalves” bespeaks a certain “I want mine” attitude – not unrelated to the coarsening of public discourse mentioned earlier.

It takes a lot of “behalves” to make a whole, and right now we really need that whole.