The Grammarphobia Blog

What a shambles!

Q: Lately, I’ve noticed the increasing use, or rather misuse, of “shambles” as a plural (“His house was in shambles”) instead of a singular (“His house was in a shambles”). This is on my list of 250 worst language offenses. What has become of the language?Amazon.com.

A: “Shambles” is a very, very old word that has had more makeovers than an aging socialite. We’ve had it in one form or another since the 9th century. Various spellings include shammel, shamil, shamwelle, shammoulle, sheamble, schambylle, shambulles, chambulles, and shambylles.

It’s been singular and plural as well as noun and verb. As a noun, it’s meant a stool, a butcher’s table, a scene of bloody mayhem, and a plain old mess, among other things. As a verb, it’s meant to walk or shuffle or stumble or cut up or slaughter.

In the 9th century, the noun sceamol was an Old English word for a stool or table (it came to us in a roundabout way from the Latin scammelum, a bench). By the 10th century, the word was being used to mean a table in a shop or market, and by the 1300s it meant specifically a butcher’s table or stall – that is, an area for the slaughter and sale of meat.

Over the years, a “shamble” or “shambles” came to mean a slaughterhouse, and eventually, by extension, a disorderly scene of carnage, ruin, or devastation.

By the 1500s it was used mostly in the plural and had acquired a “b” along the way. Even when used with an “s” at the end, however, the word was generally treated as a singular (similar to words like “measles,” “checkers,” and “news”). In 1610, for example, the poet John Donne wrote of “a spirituall shambles” of souls and “a Temporall shambles” of bodies.

In the 20th century, the word lost much of its blood and gore. We now use the noun “shambles” to refer to any chaotic or messy situation.

Back to your question: Is it correct today to say “in a shambles” or “in shambles”?

Modern dictionaries describe “shambles” as a plural word that’s usually treated as a singular. The examples given nearly always include the article “a.” But these dictionaries may be behind the times. In practice, the word is now used more often without the article. I just did a bit of googling and got these results: “in a shambles” (132,000 hits) and “in shambles” (678,000).

I believe either expression is OK, but you can always say, “What a dump!”

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