16 Jan 2010 2:50 pm   //   Filed under: Stray data

“In shambles” or “a shambles”? “Floundered” or “foundered”?

Ninety-second Saturday afternoon language lesson!

I was breezing through the story about NBC in today’s Times and smashed into a pair of phrases that I’ve never really been sure about. I looked up both in the dictionary, and of course the Times got both right. (Show-offs!) Here’s what I learned:

“Today the network is in shambles…”

Is it correct to say NBC is in shambles or a shambles? People who work at NBC might dispute this, but grammatically both are correct. Merriam-Webster’s offers two similar definitions of shambles (“a scene or a state of great destruction” or “a scene or a state of great disorder or confusion”) and two usage examples (“The city was a shambles” or “an economy in shambles”). Interesting, another meaning of the word is slaughterhouse.

“Jay Leno’s talk show … has foundered in the ratings…”

When I read this, I thought the word should have been floundered. In fact, the verb founder means “to become disabled,” to collapse, or to sink. Flounder as a verb means “to struggle to move or obtain footing,” “to thrash about wildly,” or “to proceed or act clumsily or ineffectually.” Both words fittingly describe Jay Leno, but when you’re talking about sinking ratings, foundered is more precise.

By the way, the dictionary says the origin of the verb flounder is probably the fish—picture a flounder flopping around.

Homework: Some time this week, try to slip one of these expressions into a conversation as casually as possible.