What is the subject of the question?

"How many people are in your family?"

What is the rule this question was formed with? I mean, as I know, usually, to form a question with verb to be we have such a structure:

Wh + To be (auxiliary) + subject + object ?

I assume that subject in the question is "family"?

But what is the "people" then?

I am sure that the question is grammatically correct but just curious which rule does this question follow? Wanna find info on the internet to read about it, but dunno what to google. Is it a subject question? Thanks in advance.

  • There is an exercise, where I had to order words to create a sentence, so that's what I came up with. I have no idea what is the other way to create a question, using only these words, so I am sure that I arranged the correct question, didn't I? Jan 30, 2019 at 13:25
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    Maybe, 'How many people' is the subject. Compare to: "Three people are in your family". I'm not a native speaker though.
    – dan
    Jan 30, 2019 at 13:34
  • 3
    The subject is the noun phrase "how many people", in which "people" is the head and "how many" is a determinative phrase in which the interrogative adverb "how" is a modifier of the degree determinative "many". The predicate is the verb phrase "are in your family", where the preposition phrase "in your family" functions as complement of "are". Note that it would be more natural to say "How many people are there in your family?"
    – BillJ
    Jan 30, 2019 at 13:45

3 Answers 3


How many people are in your family?

is really, in standard English:

How many people are there in your family?

There are six people in my family.

Proof of this fact is that, the answer to the question: How many people are in your family? cannot be: Six people are in my family. That is not idiomatic because a native speaker just wouldn't say that except in some limited circumstances, but not in general when discussing how many members a family has.

Compare this question about the number of family members to a question about where people are:

How many people are in the garden? Ten people are in the garden.

"in the garden" is a location. For the "family" question ("How many people are in your family?", family is not a location. That's why it sounds funny to say: "Ten people are in my family." and it sounds natural to say: "There are ten people in my family".

How many people is a noun phrase.

Alternative way to pose the question: How many family members do you have?

This pattern uses: There are, There is, and the question forms.

There is and There are are used as existential clauses to show the existence of something:

existential clauses

There in "There is" and "There are" is called a dummy subject. Another example: it. It is an interesting movie. "it" is a dummy subject.

  • I cannot agree that "How many people are in your family" is non-standard English. It is an ellipsis of "How many people are there in your family," but it is not a non-standard ellipsis. Feb 2, 2019 at 15:40
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    @JeffMorrow If you accept "How many people are in your family?", you have to accept the correlative: "[number] people are in my family." I submit that: "There are 10 people in my family." is more standard. However, if I were a census taker, that would be a special circumstance, as I mentioned. In regular conversation, as a native speaker, I would never use it without the "there", either in the question or the answer. How many people are in the garden? In + the + place. A family is not a place. Generally speaking in English: people are in a place (or at, of course).
    – Lambie
    Feb 2, 2019 at 15:50
  • But I do accept that "ten people are in my family" is good English. It seems to me that you are confusing "frequent" with "standard." Please cite an authority that "ten people are in my family" is not grammatical. Feb 2, 2019 at 21:36
  • @JeffMorrow I am not saying it is bad English. I'm saying it would only be used in certain special circumstances and not in general everyday blah blah blah about how many family members one has. It's limited to certain contexts.
    – Lambie
    Feb 3, 2019 at 0:33
  • What you said is "'Six people are in my family' is not idiomatic." I simply think that is quite wrong, Nor do I think such a sentence may be used only in linited circumstances. Again, I ask for a citation from a reputable source that "there are" is a mandatory form in English. Feb 3, 2019 at 0:51

I am not native English speaker, so please take what I say with a bit of salt ;)

My logic would be that people is the subject. How many is an attribute of people. Similar with:

Many people are in the family.

15 people are in the family.

Many and 15 are definitely not nouns - they just add extra information to the noun - quantity information in this case.

However, it is one of the more difficult grammar questions, I agree.

  • No, the subject is "how many people". "People" is the head of the noun phrase, and "how many" is an interrogative determiner.
    – BillJ
    Feb 2, 2019 at 7:54

Your question follows How many + NOUN + VERB pattern.

How many people(NOUN) are(VERB) in your family?

How many people is the subject of the sentence asking the number of people in your family.

enter image description here Source

Clarification: In the above image, How many people is labeled as NOUN as their standard; however, it is a NOUN PHRASE (a phrase being used as NOUN)!

In order to see whether the question was a "Wh + To be (auxiliary) + subject + object?", note that there is need of there in your sentence as follows, "How many people are there in your family?". Now see that "How many people are there?" would also be grammatical, however it would further create a question of Where. The "in your family" (prepositional) phrase answers Where and thence family is not the subject of the sentence.

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    "How many people" is not a noun, but a noun phrase". The complement is not "are in your family", but just "in your family". The labels 'pobj' and ADP make no sense.
    – BillJ
    Feb 2, 2019 at 8:06
  • @BillJ -1 "How many people" is not a noun, nor did I mention it to be. +1 You're right that the complement is not "are in your family", but just "in your family". +1 The label 'pobj' is indeed incorrect, that was simply a screenshot of SpaCy-dependency-tree parser. 0 ADP - adpositions (prepositions and postpositions), makes sense? ^^ Feb 2, 2019 at 13:35
  • Your diagram clearly has the word NOUN in orange for the NP "how many people". Likewise for "your family", which is also am NP. It's a confusing diagram.
    – BillJ
    Feb 2, 2019 at 15:14
  • @BillJ The diagram surely confuses those who do not know how it works ^^ explosion.ai/demos/… Feb 2, 2019 at 15:21
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    A predicator (verb) is not a dependent in an NP. It is head of its own phrase, called a VP, which functions as predicate in the clause. Anyway, I'll leave it there, as I don't want to confuse you any more.
    – BillJ
    Feb 2, 2019 at 16:14

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