Chambers: singular or plural?

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I wonder how many of Language Log's tens of thousands of American readers will have done a quick double-take on seeing the sentence that Bill Poser just quoted: "Jones's father had considered attaching him to a chambers to get a legal education". A chambers? Not a chamber? Or a bunch of chambers? Isn't chambers the regularly formed plural of chamber, meaning "room"? And isn't the indefinite article a(n) incompatible with plural nouns? Well, as I write this, the buzz and chatter in the comments below Bill's post does not include anyone asking this question, but I wouldn't be surprised if some found the phrase a chambers odd-looking. Especially since I believe it is almost entirely limited to British English (perhaps someone will correct me on this). A chambers is really just a law practice. A group of lawyers working together would take a suite of rooms in some suitable district of London proximate to the major law courts, e.g. the Temple area or the Grays Inn Road, and that suite of rooms would be referred to as their chambers; and from there, "chambers" seems to have morphed into a singular count noun denoting a law practice. That's how I understand the history to have run, anyway. (Perhaps someone will correct me on this too. But more likely the prattle in the comments area below will digress into talk of chamber pots, and from there to flower pots, and from there to the Chelsea Flower Show, and from there to the Chelsea football club, and so on… Comment warp seems uncontrollable, like the Dark Energy that cosmologists report is forcing the universe to fly apart.)


  1. Stumblng Tumblr said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 6:23 am

    When posting about the above on my own blog, I automatically left out the "a" as an obvious misunderstanding by someone not familiar with the terminology:

    The author might've meant "a set of chambers", another form of words commonly used.

    All the above's from an Australian perspective and by a person who was in chambers for many years, both barristers' and judges'.

  2. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 7:21 am

    Stumbling Tumblr's instincts (he replaced "a" by ellipsis dots when requoting from Bill Poser) were good, I think. A Google check with a search term something like {"a chambers" law} reveals plenty of use of the phrase "a chambers" (along with vast quantities of irrelevancies involving people whose last name is Chambers and their middle initial is A) — but the good hits are almost entirely (it seems to me from a quick browse) from within the UK.

  3. Mark P said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 9:01 am

    Maybe the Americans LL readers are familiar with the term from movies and British TV series, like Rumpole of the Bailey.

  4. S Onosson said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 9:07 am

    I'd never seen the term before, and have little familiarity with legal terminology here in Canada, let alone the UK. And yet, "a chambers" somehow seems quite unremarkable and comprehensible. I don't know why that is!

  5. Andrew said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 9:55 am

    To say that a chambers is a law practice is to oversimplify a bit. It is specifically a group of barristers, not of solicitors. A group of solicitors who work together form a partnership, and will commonly be referred to as a firm. A group of barristers, on the other hand, don't form a partnership; they just jointly occupy a set of rooms (the chambers), and jointly employ a clerk, secretaries etc.; hence the term 'chambers'.

    (It's also possible to say 'a set of chambers', sometimes shortened to 'a set'. I once heard a judge say that she had started out in a civil set, where she did not get on well, but had then got into a criminal set, which she found much more congenial.)

  6. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 10:30 am

    I don't have a lot of experience with actual courtroom practice, but I've seen plenty of TV shows and movies that end up in a courtroom. The place where you go to have a priavate chat with the judge is always called "the judge's chambers." It always seemed like a single room to me, so it didn't seem odd for "chambers" to appear as a singular.

    I can't recall whether chambers was ever indicated as singular or plural in these shows (I had no reason to give it that type of scrutiny), but perhaps someone with a decent courtroom drama DVD collection can check on it. I'd start with "The Rainmaker."

    Someone might want to flip through a Scott Turow novel, too, to see how he handles it.

  7. Randy Alexander said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    In the Corpus of American English (, there is only one obvious instance of this usage, from CNN Talkback "each justice has a chambers unto to him or herself", and two other somewhat ambiguous uses describing "a chambers conference", meaning a legal conference, both also from news sources.

    The quoted sentence didn't cause me any doubletake, but it is a little weird.

  8. Bobo Linq said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    "Chambers," in American English, roughly means "a judge's office." It has some special properties with respect to articles. A judge would say "Meet me in chambers" or (less commonly) "Meet me in my chambers" if he wanted a private conference with lawyers. But one would almost never say "the chambers" unless one said something like "the chambers of Judge so-and-so." This peculiarity may arise because "in chambers" corresponds to the law-Latin phrase "in camera" (literally, "in a room,' but in legal usage, "in [a judge's] chambers").

    In any event, the usage that puzzles you—"attaching him to a chambers"—seems natural to me, a lawyer who has worked in two judges' chambers. It's like saying "attaching him to an office" or "attaching him to a law practice."

  9. Bobo Linq said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    I should add that I disagree with Stumbling Tumblr that "a" in "a chambers" is a mistake. Had the writer said "attaching him to chambers," this would have implied a particular chambers (just as "Meet me in chambers" means "in my [definite] chambers," not "in some [indefinite] chambers").

  10. NW said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 11:25 am

    Slightly odder is that it can be used anarthrously when they talk about themselves: Chambers has acquired a considerable reputation; Chambers applies an equality code.

  11. Peter said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

    One of the defining characteristics of blog-posts-with-comments is that the original-poster-of-the-blog loses control of the conversation to the blog-commenters. This feature makes blogging qualitatively different from, say, radio phone-in-programs or letters columns in print newspapers. I don't understand why this very simple idea seems to cause so much stress to some of the (otherwise very sane) posters on Language Log. Surely, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued, a multiplicity of voices is something to be desired in democratic conversations, even if the outcome is cacophonous.

  12. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    To Peter, on blog-posts-with-comments: I've explained myself on this point as clearly as I can. The original purpose of the comments policy was to try to establish one small forum where discussion was not entirely uncontrolled. This seems to be impossible. That is, there is absolutely no point in having a comments policy at all; it was clearly a mistake, and I was a fool to try to encourage people to follow it.

    Peter goes on to say: "Surely, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued, a multiplicity of voices is something to be desired in democratic conversations, even if the outcome is cacophonous." For the record, the comments policy didn't stifle a multiplicity of voices (though I started to get a fair amount of mail accusing me of opposing freedom of speech and violating people's First Amendment rights).

    And of course, the web is chock-full of places (including some I participate in) where essentially totally unconstrained exchanges take place. That's fine, but that's not to say that every place on the web has to be like that.

    My current solution is to disable comments. (Of course, this gets me more mail about my arrogance, purported opposition to freedom of speech, and the like.)

    A good friend has suggested another solution, namely to freely allow comments but not to read them. After all, as Peter explained, the comments space on my postings belongs to the commenters, not to me.

  13. Faith said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    This problem crops up with the technical use of "an archives." Among librarians, archivists and historians, the term "an archives" refers specifically to the repository in which papers are housed, not generally to the papers themselves. "An archive" means a single set of papers: "An archive of committee papers." There is some drift between uses and I imagine the singular "archives" will eventually fall out of use altogether, especially as copy editors and people like that are always trying to correct it.

  14. blahedo said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 12:59 am

    As an American who had never seen (or at least noticed) this usage of "chambers" before about ten minutes ago, I can report that I found it quite unremarkable: as has been mentioned in the above comments, "chambers" does have a certain attachment to legal contexts via the phrase "judge's chambers", and that together with the careful clarity of the rest of the sentence led me to suppose that it was simply a British usage. Correctly, I might add! :)

  15. Rubrick said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 3:50 am

    Speaking of Dark Energy, did you know that the origin of the term "black hole" is…

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