This lesson explains the differences between these two sentences:
- John is so tall.
- John is too tall.
Let’s begin with #1 – the rules for so.
So is used before an adjective for emphasis (to make the statement stronger). Let’s compare these sentences:
so + adjective
- The soup is hot.
- The soup is so hot.
The second sentence is stronger. Here, so has a similar meaning to ‘very‘ (but it is a little stronger). The same is true of sentences with ‘so many/much’ + a noun. For example:
so many/much + noun
- He has many friends.
- He has so many friends.
So in the second sentence is an intensifier and is used for emphasis, making the sentence a little bit stronger. When so many or so much are used before a noun, it means a lot. If you have a lot of money, then you have so much money.
(Remember: many is used before plural countable nouns (e.g. friends, people); much is used before uncountable nouns (e.g. money, wine).)
Note: So cannot be used before a noun. For example, we cannot say ‘He is so nice man’. Instead, we use such (He is such a nice man). For a review of this grammar, please visit this page on the difference between so and such.
Too is used for emphasis also, but it means ‘more than needed’ or ‘more than enough.’ It is used to show that something is bad (negative) or that something is over the desired limit. Take a look at these ideas:
- John is so tall. He plays basketball well. (His tallness is not a bad thing)
- John is too tall. He cannot sit comfortably on an airplane. (His tallness is a bad thing)
The second sentence means that he is very tall and that is a bad thing. His height is over the limit. He is 2 meters tall. Therefore he cannot fit on an airplane. John is too tall.
Let’s look at more examples.
- You work so hard. I wish everyone worked like you. :)
- You work too hard. You should take a break. :(
Again, the second sentence is a negative comment. You are saying that the person works more than enough and should work less.
Because too describes something bad (negative), the below sentences do not make sense.
This is too delicious!= This is so delicious. I am too happy! = I am so happy She is too beautiful!= She is so beautiful.
These sentences all describe good (positive) things, so we do not use too.
Note: Too is often used in the structure too + adjective/adverb + infinitive
- The pizza is too hot to eat. = (The pizza is too hot. I cannot eat it)
- You are too young to watch that movie. = (You are not old enough)
- I was too tired to do my homework. ( = I didn’t do it. My tiredness was ‘over the limit’, so I slept).
- She ran too slowly to win the race. (= Her speed was too slow; she could not win)
- She speaks too poorly to get a job. (= Her writing is not good enough; she cannot get a job)
Again, in all these sentences, too means over the limit or more than a desired quantity/level.
Following these rules, we still come across sentences that are similar in meaning. For example:
- It’s so hot today. Let’s stay inside. (very hot)
- It’s too hot today. Let’s stay inside. (there is too much heat so we cannot go outside)
Both of these sentences are correct and work well in this situation. In many situations though, one word is more suitable than the other. Look at this example:
- The camera was ___ expensive, but I bought it.
- The camera was ___ expensive. I didn’t buy it.
What’s the answer for #1? So is the best answer. Why? If it were too expensive, then you couldn’t have bought it. It would be over the limit of the money you had (unless you had a credit card). The camera was so expensive (very expensive), but you bought it. The price was within your limits.
What’s the answer for #2? Too. The price was too high. You didn’t have enough money. Therefore, you could not buy it. You could use ‘so’ here to mean it was very expensive. But if you want to express that the price was higher than you could afford, use too expensive.
Those are the main differences between so and too in English grammar. To summarize, so is similar to very (but a little stronger) and too is used to used to describe a (negative) situation when something is over a limit.
Do you think you understand? Take the So/Too Quiz!
1. This cake is delicious. I want another piece! Answer
2. There were many people in the train, so I couldn’t get on. Answer
3. When I was a child, I had much free time. I loved it. Answer
4. The salaries at that company are high. I want to work there! Answer
5. Roger thinks that he’s old to go to nightclubs. He says that he’d rather stay home and watch TV. Answer
6. You put much salt in the soup. It tastes terrible. Answer
7. You are beautiful. Answer
I hope this lesson has been helpful. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below.
– Matthew Barton of Englishcurrent.com