Sunday, October 21, 2007

Was this written in your behalf?

My eyes landed on part of a verse in the TNIV today which had a preposition that didn't sound right to me. I read it to my wife and it didn't sound right to her either. I later checked a dictionary and discovered something. But before I tell you what I discovered, would you please read the following words and vote in the new poll in the margin whether the bold italicized words sound good to you in your dialect of English. Please do not check a dictionary before you vote:
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
(UPDATE: Commenter Martin Shields discovered the same thing I did: some dictionaries state that there has been a difference observed by some people between "in behalf of" and "on behalf of". As you can see from the results of Martin's googling and the poll results for this issue, that distinction has been lost for a large majority of English speakers. I am nearly 60 years old. I was taught English by a prescriptivist mother and prescriptivist teachers at school, but I had never heard of the dictionary distinction until a few minutes before I wrote this blog post. Oh, the wording in question is from Is. 58:10, in both the NIV and TNIV.)


eclexia said...

I voted, but wanted to add that the phrase "spend yourselves" preceding the preposition in question also sounds awkward. I could expend myself for the poor or spend my money for the poor, but I don't think I'd ever "spend myself for the poor."

Rod Ford said...

I spend myself every day, it's what I choose to spend myself "in behalf of" that matters most.

If I spend myself only on my own interests, am I not selfish. If I spend myself on television or the Internet, am I not only a clanging gong.

eclexia said...

I understand what you're saying, Rod, and I agree with the concept you're expressing. It's just that I don't hear that as natural English. I understand what it means when I read it in TNIV, but I would never think to use those words, and I probably would do a doubletake if I heard someone else use that construction in a conversation. I'd be able to figure out what they meant, it would just sound awkward to me.

The closest I can think of is saying, "I'm spent" after the fact, meaning I'm all worn out from a particular activity. But not the present tense, "I'm spending myself" or "Today I will spend myself doing ...."

martin shields said...

According to The American Heritage Book of English Usage the two expressions are meant to have distinct meanings:

A traditional rule holds that in behalf of and on behalf of have distinct meanings. Accordingly, you should use in behalf of to mean “for the benefit of,” as in We raised money in behalf of the earthquake victims. And you should use on behalf of to mean “as the agent of, on the part of,” as in The guardian signed the contract on behalf of the child. But as the two meanings are quite close, the phrases are often used interchangeably, even by reputable writers.

However, search Google for the phrases and "in behalf of" appears about 1.5 million times compared to about 140 million times for "on behalf of," suggesting that the former is dropping out of general usage altogether.

Wayne Leman said...

Thanks, Martin. That was exactly the discovery I alluded to in my post. I'm glad you come to the same conclusion I have. If two of us think the same thing, maybe others do also!