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How much stops is it?

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

‘How many stops, you mean,’ I said, the pedant within me too strong to resist. ‘It’s eleven stops.’

A little later the same girl asked me: ‘How much stops is it now?’

‘How many stops? Nine.’

A bit later and she’s tugging at my sleeve again. ‘How much stops?’

It was at this point I realised the question was no longer a genuine query, if it ever had been. If she’d wanted to know the number of stops she could have looked for herself. She just enjoyed using a non-standard grammatical form, and hearing me impotently correct it added to the fun. The form was probably derived from a patois she’d heard older relatives use, and she liked it – it was part of her identity and an enjoyable way to distinguish herself from boring middle-aged bespectacled white people like me. So after that I just smiled and told her how much stops it was whenever she asked (which she did all the way back as well).

I’m reminded of this incident because I am hearing it more often round my way (Walthamstow, East London) and not just in the mouths of black kids, but white and Asian kids too. I’m not quite sure why it’s catching on, except that it does seem to be a general sociolinguistic phenomenon that white kids copy the speech of black kids – remember Ali G? Maybe they think it makes them sound more rebellious. And there is something about this particular form that’s pleasing, funny even, because it’s such a deliberate and obvious flouting of a well-known rule. The rule is that much is used for uncountable nouns like snow, water, gas, land etc and many is used for countable ones like fingers, hamburgers, mountains, violins etc. Even if most people couldn’t put that rule into words, it’s known instinctively from an early age. But really, is it such an important distinction?  Doing without it would not lead to any confusion. In French combien de is used for both countable and uncountable nouns and they don’t get mixed up.

I’m not about to start saying How much fishfingers do you want? etc myself, but I have decided I don’t mind this form; and next time I hear it, I won’t correct it or even feel like doing so.

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8 Comments
  1. Roland Rance permalink

    That anecdote reminds me of this lovely scene from Casablanca. (Not that the others aren’t lovely, but your story recalls this one) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Th0G8rkhBqg

  2. The distinction between countable and uncountable nouns is also lost as “less” replaces “fewer” and “amount” replaces “number” in day-to-day speech.

    /@

  3. Perhaps you yield too easily without asking why this form of grammatical agreement between words seems pleasing or at least, useful, in English; or why it evolved and persisted so long.

  4. Michael permalink

    When my eldest nephew was little, he would enquire about our various ages by asking “how many are you?”

  5. you may want to read up on MLE and its different forms in the UK

  6. Sam permalink

    I love the way that children play with language either accidentally or deliberately. My 5 year old sometimes accuses me of ‘confusing and distracting’ him when I am trying to help with his reading. But this would be far too long a phrase for him to bother with so instead I must stop “constracting” him, a brilliant piece of creative melding!

  7. Jo Clifford permalink

    Old habits die hard. You may not, indeed, correct this next time, but I don’t think you won’t be tempted!

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