Strange structure of "is in a shambles"



When I said "is in a shambles", a native speaker of American English corrected me, saying it should be "is in shambles." And it makes sense, because in my case you have a (represents singularity), and shambles, which is plural. Sounds strange—"a shambles." But nevertheless it is also correct.

The question is how do you come up with such strange structures? Where do they stem of? How will you justify singularity and plurality 'in one'?


Posted 2014-04-08T10:42:37.797

Reputation: 7 310

I'm not sure "American" qualifies as a language just yet, and after "native" it's especially confusing. I recommend "AmE", or just "English" (since this person's Americanness does not seem relevant), or just removing the word altogether (since you are writing on a site that has only the English language as its focus).

– Tyler James Young – 2014-04-08T18:29:45.113

@graduate: a "Native American" is one of the indigenous population of the United States, formerly called "American Indian". However, if you don't capitalize the N, your meaning should be fairly clear. Nevertheless, I second Tyler's recommendation. – BobRodes – 2014-04-08T22:07:50.047

Just as a very small aside - I am American. I'd be slightly more likely to say "This place is in shambles!" but only slightly. I would not raise an eyebrow at "This place is in a shambles!". The difference is so subtle as to be inconsequential. – Jolenealaska – 2014-04-09T13:36:02.393

@Jolenealaska: People of the age 25 and younger (like my interlocutor) might have a more radical position. – Graduate – 2014-04-09T23:20:34.040



There's no single rule that'll enlighten us with everything that happens in English. In such cases, we have to learn, delearn and finally remember.

The origin of in (a) shambles is very interesting. Here is the paragraph in-situ

A place or situation referred to as a shambles is usually a mess, but it is no longer always the bloody mess it once was. The history of the word begins innocently enough with the Latin word scamnum, "a stool or bench serving as a seat, step, or support for the feet, for example." The diminutive scamillum, "low stool," was borrowed by speakers of Old English as sceamol, "stool, bench, table." Old English sceamol became Middle English shamel, which developed the specific sense in the singular and plural of "a place where meat is butchered and sold." The Middle English compound shamelhouse meant "slaughterhouse," a sense that the plural shambles developed (first recorded in 1548) along with the figurative sense "a place or scene of bloodshed" (first recorded in 1593). Our current, more generalized meaning, "a scene or condition of disorder," is first recorded in 1926

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

Maulik V

Posted 2014-04-08T10:42:37.797

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Where did you find this article? What I have found is this --

– Graduate – 2014-04-08T11:31:05.707

1+1 Exactly right. But very few contemporary speakers have ever encountered the word outside the phrase in a shambles, and fewer know what the word means; so it is understandable that they come to think it is a plural and should be treated so - hence, in shambles. That's how language changes. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-04-08T11:41:00.357



– Damkerng T. – 2014-04-08T12:04:59.667

@Graduate that's fifth edition. I talked about fourth edition. – Maulik V – 2014-04-08T12:11:39.503


I don't think shambles is a plural.

Insofar I find shamble, it is a verb, or a noun derived from that same verb, but having a different meaning altogether.

I would guess that shambles, notwithstanding its ending in an -s, is a singular, just like a series.


Posted 2014-04-08T10:42:37.797

Reputation: 24 925

Funny - I come to the same conclusion as the other answer, but my conclusion gets downvoted. I would love to know the reasoning :) – oerkelens – 2014-04-08T13:36:48.857

Just to add to this answer: the Oxford dictionaries avoid saying "shambles" is singular or plural, it just says "treated as singular", American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says it's plural but used with a singular verb,... I think all this is telling us that original word was plural but nowadays is used as a singular noun.

– Nico – 2014-04-08T18:25:57.207

(I didn't downvote.). It can be singular, but it can also be plural, and it usually is: in shambles is more common than in a shambles today. – snailplane – 2014-04-09T12:28:45.360


I just checked the American Heritage Dic.and Collins, both have "in a shambles/ a shambles".Neither dictionary says anything about singular or plural. As both dictionaries have "a" one may assume that "shambles" is a singular. But I take it that a lot of people think it is a plural. So I would see the situation with the American who said it should be "in shambles". It seems to be a dark idiom, even etymonline does not try to explain the s of shambes. Obviously one knows the origin of the word and the various steps in the development of meanings, but there seems to be uncertainty about the s-ending.

In such cases it is helpful to find a hypothesis that might make the curiosity understandable. The semantic steps were bench, bench of butchers, slaughterhouse (with butchers' benches), carnage, chaos/mess. So, I think, one might assume a formula such as "a shamble's carnage/chaos" meaning the chaos of a slaughterhouse. The genitive shamble's may easily have become shambles.

Please, don't take this for a historical explanation. It is only meant to give an idea of the curious things that can happen in the development of languages.


Posted 2014-04-08T10:42:37.797

Reputation: 8 304


This answer is speculative, but it's a reasonable hypothesis for why we treat the plural as a singular, as the OP has asked.

Merriam-Webster gives this etymological information:

Middle English shameles, plural of schamel vendor's table, footstool, from Old English sceamol stool, from Latin scamillum, diminutive of scamnum stool, bench; perhaps akin to Sanskrit skambha pillar
First Known Use: 15th century

The "shameles" is interesting. A bunch of vendors' tables in a marketplace, all taken as a group, would certainly be a colorful representation of a disorganized mess. (I'm thinking of a "flea market", but perhaps with all sorts of parts of animals, in varying stages of decomposition, thrown in the mix, among other things equally not to modern taste.) It doesn't take much to see "the shameles" coming to refer to a big mess, and from there to be thought of as a single big mess.

An analogue would be the change from "the United States are" to "the United States is" after the Civil War.

Interestingly, one French translation of "shambles" is "bazar"; I had a French friend who referred to her two small children's playroom as "le bazar".


Posted 2014-04-08T10:42:37.797

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