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How much stops is it?

April 14, 2012

About four and a half years ago, I took my daughter and her friends ice-skating. On the tube journey to the rink, one of the friends, a little black girl aged 11, asked me, ‘How much stops is it?’

‘How many stops is it,’ I corrected her, the pedant in me unable to resist. ‘Eleven.’

A little while later, she asked again: ‘How much stops is it now?’

‘How many stops. Nine.’

And a bit later again: ‘How much stops is it?’

At this point I realised that the question was no longer a genuine query, if it ever had been. If she’d really wanted to know how much stops it was she could have looked for herself. She just enjoyed saying ‘How much stops?’ Probably it was a form derived from a patois that she’d heard older friends or relatives use, and it gave her a sense of identity; and being able to make a white middle-aged bespectacled character like me impotently insist on the standard usage must have added to the pleasure. So after that I stopped correcting her and just answered whenever she asked me how much stops it was, which she did all the way back as well.

The reason I mention this now is that I’m hearing this usage more and more often round my way (Walthamstow, East London), and not just from black kids but white and Asian ones too (of course it’s a well-known sociololinguistic fact that white kids copy the speech of black kids – remember Ali G?) And I can see why it’s becoming more popular: it’s such an obvious, deliberate flouting of a well-known rule that it’s kind of funny. The rule is, of course, that many is used for countable nouns like fingers, mountains, hamburgers, violins etc, and much is used for uncountable nouns like air, snow, land, gas etc. Maybe not everyone could put the rule into words neatly, but all native speakers know it instinctively from an early age.

It’s not a necessary rule, in the sense of affecting the meaning of what’s said. In French combien de is used for both countable and uncountable nouns and this never leads to confusion. I don’t think I’m about to start saying How much fishfingers do you want? myself any time soon, but I don’t mind the usage any more; and next time someone asks me how much stops it is, I won’t be tempted to correct them.

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