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Can we say:

The country was in a turmoil

instead of:

The country was in turmoil

I have searched the web and found that it is used without "a". But why is it so? Is the first use incorrect?

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Until the middle of the last century we usually included the article...

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...but the current preference is now so strong that I think most (particularly, younger) people would probably notice and think it slightly "odd, dated" if you included it today.


Another closely-related usage where the same "article loss" has occurred over roughly the same time-frame is (to be) in (a) tumult. But it's interesting to note that although historically there never was an article in to be in (a) high dudgeon, you'll see from this chart that the article has started to appear there (but it's still far less common than the "standard" version).

I would say there's a general trend towards "simplification" in English, so "unnecessary" articles may sometimes disappear. With relatively uncommon words like turmoil, tumult, dudgeon there will always be some native speakers who simply aren't familiar with standard usage anyway, but on average if they're going to get it wrong they're more likely to err on the side of parsimony (if you don't know you need something, it's usually better to discard it than keep it).

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    To your point about it sounding strange to more recent generations, I actually had no idea that "a turmoil" was ever considered correct (born in 80s).
    – jpmc26
    Mar 10 '17 at 20:10
  • Same here. If I saw a sentence using "in a turmoil", I'd assume that it was, ahem, in an error.
    – Mr Lister
    Mar 10 '17 at 22:25
  • @Mr Lister, jpmc26: I expect we all read quite a bit, and much of what we read was actually written many years earlier. So given it was actually more common to include the article until about 50 years ago, I suspect it's not so much that you've never encountered the "older" version. You probably tend to just skip over that little extra word because you're not expecting it anyway. And I'm sure that "unexpected, therefore unnoticed" phenomenon happens even more in spoken contexts. Mar 10 '17 at 22:38
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In a turmoil trivializes turmoil.

This is going to sound silly - but it's because use of the indefinite article makes it seem like there's a group of "turmoils" just waiting to happen to countries that can be assigned at will.

You may want to do this for something minor or funny, e.g. "The country is in a turmoil over Trump dyeing his hair green."

This doesn't happen with in turmoil - because you are not specially addressing the question "which turmoil" with an article, it comes off stronger as a state that the entire country is in, rather than a "thing" it is experiencing.

As turmoil typically does not describe something trivial it's not surprising in a turmoil is not common.

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  • I don't buy the idea that including the article somehow "trivialises" the referent. Over 2500 references to being in a complete shambles and dozens of references to an utter turmoil don't imply anything to me about there being other "shambles" and "turmoils" (which might make the one currently under consideration seem less "exceptional"). Mar 10 '17 at 15:14
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Turmoil is a state or condition similar to chaos.

Things can be in turmoil or in chaos.

They can not be in a chaos or in a turmoil.

This is similar to other states or conditions such as love, ecstasy, heaven, distress.

People are in love not in a love.

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  • The fact that it's never been idiomatic to speak of being in a love or in a chaos has no direct relevance to the fact that to be in a turmoil has increasingly been replaced by to be in turmoil over the past several decades. Mar 10 '17 at 14:38
  • @FumbleFingers I presumed the OP would want to know about current usage
    – Chris M
    Mar 10 '17 at 14:40
  • But you seem to be trying to explain the usage by comparing turmoil to chaos, love, ecstasy, etc. And I'm just pointing out that these aren't directly comparable, because they never had an earlier version where the article was included. Mar 10 '17 at 14:43
  • I'm comparing them because their usage is now the same regardless of their historical usage. The OP wants to know the current usage. He didn't ask for a history lesson.
    – Chris M
    Mar 10 '17 at 14:47
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    @Lawrence: Ooops! Sorry about that! You're quite right, of course. Usage is shaped by historical / social context at least as much as by "current semantics". Particularly when we're talking about tiny little changes like discarding an article (which would normally have more relevance to syntax than semantics). Mar 10 '17 at 16:05

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