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Is the phrase an idiom? What does it mean in the following sentence?

People sometimes ask what it takes for someone to remain the same person from one time to another.

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    Yes, it is an idiom. It's from a recipe formula: "It takes A, B, C, and D to make X", which is extraposed (inserting a dummy "it") from a sentence with an infinitive subject complement "To make X takes A, B, C and D". Takes means needs; the ingredients are fungible and therefore used up, so they are "taken away". – John Lawler Jan 27 '14 at 3:07
  • @ЯegDwight: I'd agree with your implied "this is GR" if this was on ELU, but here on ELL I think it's entirely appropriate that John & StoneyB should give more "learner-oriented" insights into why the idiomatic form exists and has the meaning it does. Understanding how it all hangs together must surely make it easier to learn what native speakers automatically know by virtue of growing up with the usage. I must admit I'm not entirely clear myself why it's invariably it takes, but he/she/I/they/etc. need in closely-related constructions. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jan 27 '14 at 5:21
  • @FumbleFingers true, which is why I didn't kill off the question as GR, but migrated it here where I don't have the power to kill it off as GR. And it doesn't take a clairvoyant to see that John Lawler's and StoneyB's remarks go beyond the Wiktionary definition. – ЯegDwight Jan 27 '14 at 11:19
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    @ЯegDwight: Do I take it from that you approve of the question being asked and answered here on ELL, but didn't approve same on ELU? Apologies if I seem dumb or obsessed with detail, but I'm still trying to get my head around the precise distinction between On/Off Topic on the two sites. It would suit me to treat this particular Question + Comment + Answer combination as a good example of where that distinction falls. (And it would suit me even more to know others agree! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jan 27 '14 at 12:56
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When speaking of the requirements for performing an action we often use the idiom It takes REQUIREMENTS for SUBJECT to VERB:

It takes two hours for the train to go from St. Louis to Cape Girardeau.
It will take $600 for us to repair your axle.

In many cases you may say this without the SUBJECT; in that case you drop the for, too:

It will take $600 to repair your axle.

If you don't know a word you may come to ELL and ask what that is. In the same way, if you don't know the requirements for something you may ask what it takes for X.

Note that these are not directly quoted questions, but ‘free relative clauses’ which express the content of the question.

QUESTION: What is that?
FREE RELATIVE: You want to know what that is.

QUESTION: What does it take for me to pass this course?
FREE RELATIVE: You want to know what it takes to pass the course.

Some grammarians call clauses like this indirect questions and distinguish them from 'true' free relatives, which play a somewhat different role in sentences:

What it takes for us to repair your axle is $600.

But I'm not convinced that they are two different things.

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