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Is this question grammatically correct?

How common is it that major cities are not built by abundant water?

is how a German would translate the original question. It seems to me in English it is more common to use such shortened phrases, while in German there is really no way to leave out subjunctions like that and build a shortened grammatically correct sentence. Is there a name for this shortening in English?

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You could shorten it to "How often are major cities not built by abundant water?", but the reality is native speakers probably wouldn't put it that way in the first place. Apart from anything else, I was half-expecting "built by..." to be followed by something like "...immigrant labour". I'd just dump the pointless rhetorical question structure and make the statement "Major cities normally only arise where there is abundant [fresh] water." –  FumbleFingers Oct 30 '12 at 22:17
    
We steal the same word the Germans do: ellipsis, rarely ellipse. The sentence in the body is fine, though I'd be inclined to write "are built away from" instead. That in the title doesn't mean the same thing; the only way you can drop the "that" and keep the sense is by translating the clause into one with a different head: "for major cities to be built, &c". –  StoneyB Oct 30 '12 at 22:19
    
I think we use often more often than common in such constructions. And it turns out "how often is it you {do something}" isn't actually that uncommon. It's true that "how often is it that you {do it}" occurs twice as often, but both forms seem perfectly normal to me. We aren't obliged to include the word "that" in all contexts. –  FumbleFingers Oct 30 '12 at 22:25
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-1 since question could be more clear about what "this question" refers to in first sentence. Is it referring to title's phrasing or to the phrasing in body? You can edit question to clarify and I can then disdownvote. I suggest that the body of the question be phrased to stand on its own independently of the title –  jwpat7 Oct 30 '12 at 22:31
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How common are major cities not built near abundant water? Or: How commonly are major cities not built near abundant water? You don't want to use "built by" because that is too ambiguous. –  Peter Shor Oct 30 '12 at 22:43
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2 Answers

The “shortening” or ellipsis you ask about is factitious, because the Body question doesn't translate the Title question: they're not parallel, either semantically or structurally.

In the first place: they don't mean the same thing: one asks about how often cities are encountered, the other asks how frequently they're built.

Q: How common are major cities built away from abundant water?
A: There are few such cities.

Q: How common is it that major cities are built away from abundant water?
A: Such cities are rarely built.

Granted, in this particular instance it doesn't matter that much. But consider these:

Q: How common are major companies started with insufficient capital?
A: There are few such companies—because most of them fail.

Q: How common is it that major companies are started with insufficient capital?
A: Most companies are started with insufficient capital—which is a major reason why most of them fail.

In the second place: If we eliminate this contrast by changing ‘common’ in the Title question to an adverb, it becomes obvious that the that can be dropped only because the impersonal construction is changed.

How common is it that cities are built ... ?
How commonly are cities built ... ?

And you can do exactly the same thing in German:

Wie häufig kommt es vor, daß Städte gebaut werden ... ?
Wie häufig werden Städte gebaut ... ?

In fact, you can make it even shorter with “Wie häufig baut man”.

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Note that your subject line and the question text are not identical.
While the import is very similar the meanings are subtly different.
An accustomed English speaker would get much the same message from either.
The former is arguably more "euphonic" even if, perhaps, apparently less grammatically correct.

The query

  • How common are major cities not built by abundant water?

... refers to the city.
It queries the commonness (ie lack of rarity) of cities which belong to the class "major cities not built by water".

Properly, the city has to still exist to qualify.

But the query

  • How common is it that major cities are not built by abundant water?

... refers to the act of building.
It queries the commonness of the building of cities besides abundant water, where the cities belong to the class "major cities".

Here, no time period is specified for the building. The time scope of " ... are not built ..." will depend on the understanding of those involved. To a modern town planner it may relate only to current city construction practice. To an archaeologist it may logically include cities built since Sumer onwards.

While both meanings are liable to be interchangeable in a recipients mind, and while it is hard to sensibly imagine a city which belongs in one set and not in another, the two questions are not identical and, on analysis ask quite different things.

You could argue that the question re building cities could be answered with examples from all of human history, whereas the question re the existence of cities might be deemed to apply only to cities which currently exist. To make such a fine distinction is liable to be substantially more pedantic than would be justified in most cases, but may be something that specialists might do in informal conversation.
Pedantic example to illustrate the point: Babylon, in what is now Iraq, was a major city and was built by water. For a long while it existed, having been built by water. Then for a long while it no longer existed. While some would argue that it now again exists, it is no longer a major city.

FWIW cities that never qualify for either condition would be rare. If Macchu Pichu ever qualified as a major city then it would be a fine example.

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