Their behalves are more different than yours

A couple of items in Guy Keleny’s column (looking uses of language in his paper, the Independent) caught my eye. First:

Here is an oddity, from a news story about the US presidential election, published on Wednesday: “Accurately assessing the cash battle is difficult, however, because it is not just the finances of the campaigns that have to be considered but also the towering sums being spent by outside organisations on their behalves.” “Behalves” looks weird. So what is the plural of “behalf”? Is it “behalves” or “behalfs”? Neither. I don’t think “behalf” has a plural, and I suggest that multiple people can share a single behalf.

A Google Books Ngram suggests ‘behalfs’ and ‘behalves’ are, and long have been, vanishingly rare. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and Garner’s Modern American Usage don’t mention a plural form of behalf.

But for me the problem with the quoted sentence is that it mentions “finances”, then “campaigns”, then “towering sums”, then “outside organisations”, and rounds off with a “their”. The referent is fairly, but only fairly, clear. You can avoid both concerns by saying “…the towering sums being spent by outside organisations acting as proxies.”

Item 2:

“A largely wordless meditation on memory and guilt, it could hardly be more different than the films for which he later became famous,” said our obituary of Tony Scott, published on Tuesday. I come from London, and at home we always said “different from”. Letters I received after last discussing this question suggest that “different to” may be the norm in some parts of the country. “Different than” has, to me, an American flavour, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Does it matter?

Of course there’s nothing wrong with American and British English influencing each other – yes, it goes both ways. And ‘different than’ can be useful (it saves empty words when the object is a full clause rather than a noun or pronoun).

But in this sentence, we have “more different than”, and the “more” could be read as setting up a comparison that the “than” then delivers: his famous films were quite different from each other, but this wordless meditation was even more different. Which may be true, but feels a bit odd. Better to use “different from” here.

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Comments

  • bratschegirl  On September 7, 2012 at 7:34 am

    I’m a Yank, and I was taught never to use “different than,” but my trusty American Heritage Dictionary tells me it is equally as acceptable as “different from,” and preferable when the object of comparison is a full clause as you stated above. The Usage Note reads in part, “Critics since the 18th century have singled out ‘different than’ as incorrect, though it is well attested in the works of reputable writers.” I’m interested to read that someone from London grew up saying “from;” I thought “different to” was standard British usage.

  • Chris  On September 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Checked OED and it appears that in the 16-17th century, behalfs and behalfes were used but that now, behalf is used regardless. My spellchecker, which I fear is set to AE accepts behalves so it may be from the States.

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