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April 15th, 2009

Be to class? / emigrate and immigrate / in vs. on behalf of

by Barbara Wallraff

Jojo Johnson, of Gansevoort, N.Y., writes: “I am an art teacher at a high school. I serve on a committee with other teachers. The committee is putting together some rules for students. One of the (English) teachers has presented a rule: ‘Be to class on time.’ I think this phrase is not correct English. ‘Be in class on time’ or ‘Get to class on time’ would be more correct. Am I wrong?”

Dear Jojo: No, you’re right -- though I’d call “Be to class on time” “unidiomatic” rather than “incorrect.” That means it sounds weird -- an objection that isn’t always persuasive. The teacher who came up with “Be to class on time” may well respond, “It doesn’t sound weird to me” -- and then where are you?

Conscientious English teachers probably spend more time than they’d like rooting “get” out of students’ writing. The verb is often quite informal -- as in “Get a load of this,” “I don’t get it,” and “I have got ...” (instead of “I have”). So your colleague may be prejudiced against this word. Nonetheless, “get” has legitimate uses, and it seems to me that “Get to class on time” is one of them.

Mike Nader, of Northville, Mich., writes: “The terms ‘emigrant/emigrate’ and ‘immigrant/immigrate’ seem to have a subtle distinction that eludes me. Am I wrong in thinking that they are synonymous and, hence, interchangeable?”

Dear Mike: You’re right in thinking there’s a distinction. When people leave their country of origin, they are “emigrating.” When they arrive in a new country to live, they are “immigrating.” Practically speaking, of course, a person does both at once. The two words refer not to different activities but to different points of view on the same activity. So, for instance, the concern in the United States is illegal “immigration”: the arrival of people not lawfully entitled to be here. The concern in China, India and parts of Africa is the “emigration” of well-
educated citizens to places with higher standards of living.

Shirley Twiselton, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “I have written a letter to a prominent person in our city and used the phrase ‘in behalf of’ our organization. Another member of the organization suggested the phrase should have been ‘on behalf of.’ I would like the opinion of an expert.”

Dear Shirley: Here’s a distinction even subtler than the one between “immigrate” and “emigrate.” “In behalf of” means “in the interest of”; “on behalf of” means “as the representative of.” To illustrate the difference: Every spring in my state, Massachusetts, an organization called Project Bread organizes a Walk for Hunger. It does so “in behalf of” families that don’t have enough to eat. The person who receives the pledges and follows through does so “on behalf of” Project Bread.

“In behalf of” and “on behalf of” often overlap. But you probably intended to be representing your organization when you wrote to that prominent person, rather than just speaking up for its interests. So your fellow member was right to suggest “on behalf of” as the better choice.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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