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I just read a question in Oxford Word Skills about bus routes:

'How many stops is it to the park?'

Although I feel "how many stops are they..." sounds awkward, "how many stops are there..." sounds normal to me.

In many examples that I've seen with how many or how much, if the main verb is 'be', it agrees with the noun after how many or how much. E.g. 'how many apples are in the fridge?'

Why doesn't the verb 'be', here 'is', agree with 'stops'? What kind of grammar is "how many stops is it..."?!

By the same analogy, can I say "how many apples is it in the fridge?" If yes, how is it different from "how many apples are there in the fridge?"?

  • I think the salient modifier here is the "to the park". If you were answering the question you'd also say "It is X stops to the park" because "There are X stops to the park" sounds off. If you wanted to use "are" I'd reword the question to "How many stops are there between here and the park?" Unfortunately I'm not well-versed enough in the subtle nuances of grammar to tell you why this is the case. – John Clifford Mar 14 '16 at 13:02
  • I think in this case "is it" could be interpreted as "does it take" like "How many stops does it take to the park?", referring to a bus or any vehicle. – Joao Arruda Mar 14 '16 at 20:47
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I'll give you two other sentences with "is it" and "are there": "How many miles is it to London" (I'm asking about the distance). "How many pubs are there on the way to the park" (I am asking you to count the pubs).

When I say "how many stops is it to the park", I am asking about the distance. It's not a distance in miles, but if you are used to taking the bus, you have a feel for you long it is from one stop to the next, so this is a good way to estimate the distance. On the motorway I could ask "how many exits to our destination", same thing, it is equivalent to the distance.

When I say "how many stops are there to the park", I am asking about the number of stops. I could ask "how many road signs are there to the park", or any other thing I would like to count.

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If you ask -

'How many stops is it to the park?'

It can be answered with -

'It is 10 stops to the park.'

So, the subject here is 'it' and not 'stops' as you and I think. Thus, it takes a singular verb.

  • Well, yes the question say this is the subject. I'm asking what kind of grammar is this? What does 'it' refer to? Can I say e.g 'how many apples is it in the fridge?' – Yuri Mar 14 '16 at 13:34
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    'It' in this construction refers to the duration of the trip to park (or its length as measured in stops). – Tofystedeth Mar 14 '16 at 15:15
  • How many apples are there in the fridge? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 14 '16 at 20:45
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In your question it refers to your destination, a single geographic point.
Stops is used as a unit of measure for distance, other measures may also be used (below).

How many stops is it ( from here )?
How many stops is my destination

How far is it to the park?
How far is my destination

It can be substituted with the park without loss of understanding

It's five stops to the park. ( the park is five stops away ).
It's four traffic lights to the park. ( the park is four traffic lights away )
It's twelve blocks to the park. ( the park is twelve blocks away )

Some other examples

Q: How many stops is it to the park?
A: It is five stops to the park.

Q: How many stops are there until the park?
A: There are five stops.

In your apple example

Q: How many apples are there in the fridge?
A: There are twenty apples in the fridge.

"How many apples is it in the fridge?" is awkward at best.

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Why doesn't the verb 'be', here 'is', agree with 'stops'? What kind of grammar is "how many stops is it..."?!

By the same analogy, can I say "how many apples is it in the fridge?" If yes, how is it different from "how many apples are there in the fridge?"?

Consider this imaginary conversation:

How many apples are there in the fridge?
-- There are more than you would expect. You will never guess how many there are!
Six?
-- No.
Eleven?
-- No.
How many apples is it, then??? Just tell me! I don't like this guessing game.

This idiomatic example shows that, semantically, "are there" asks for the number of something, whereas "is it" presents the answer to the question as being in a different category from "number", that is, as being in the category of "what-I-don't-know" or "information-I-need".

The difference between dummy "there" and dummy "it" is in the degree of abstraction. The locative dummy is the more tangible of the two.

So, the idiomatic question "How many stops is it before we get off?" is projecting to the listener the idea that the questioner would like to know a particular fact. Agreement in number is not relevant to this form of dummy "it".

The locative dummy being the more tangible, number agreement is more relevant, and therefore "How many stops is there?" raises grammatical red flags whereas "How many stops is it?" does not.

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