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AN ODD WORD

“Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt,” sighed Hamlet in his famous soliloquy. Four centuries later, affected or merely silly members of the British upper classes might describe some embarrassing incident as “just too too shaming”. Yet the too too usage, redoubling the word simply for emphasis, can be traced back a century before Shakespeare. And it’s a reminder of what an odd word too is.

It springs from an original spelling of to, with a single o; indeed, today’s German equivalent zu does duty for to and too alike. English, it seems, decided in the 16th century to redouble the o when the word was emphasized, in a sense quite separate from the to of to go or to London. But which sense, exactly? Hamlet and the British sillies are in fact using too in different ways. He means simply that flesh is so solid that it won’t melt. The silly Brits — mostly young women, I have to say, and I’ve nothing against young women — don’t mean that the incident was excessively shaming, merely that it was very shaming.

Both those senses of too have long histories and both are entirely acceptable, though Hamlet’s overmuch sense is by far the more common. Most often this too precedes an adjective: I’m too angry to speak. But it can precede part of a verb: he was too concerned with his career to notice his wife — and though the third edition of Fowler in 1996 called that usage “slightly unidiomatic”, it certainly isn’t so today.

This sense has produced some nice idioms, such as that’s just too much, meaning “more than I can put up with”, or too much of a good thing. The very sense came later and is still a bit colloquial. It also offers some idioms, such as too true, meaning “you’re absolutely right”; or I’m not too sure of that, which paradoxically means “I’m not sure at all”. Too bad is now widespread in the sense of “what a pity, but....”; for example, in so our goalkeeper’s broken his arm, has he? Too bad, he’ll just have to play on the right wing. These rival senses can merge: that’s too kind of you may well imply that some offer is indeed very generous but also more generous than is really necessary or maybe welcome. Besides those two allied senses, too has another that is wholly distinct: that of also, as well, in addition and the like. This meaning raises some issues of word-order.

You can begin a sentence or clause with also or in addition and so on, but not with too, in this sense. Not in British English, that is. Until the 17th century you could. But that usage died out, only to be revived in 20th-century American. There’s a curious hint of it in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors: Pretty and witty; wild and yet, too, gentle. Early printed editions put no commas around too, so suggesting that the lady at issue was over-gentle. But put commas in, imagine the actor pausing before and after too, think of it as also, and all is clear. That distraction put aside, in today’s Brenglish the word-order for this sense of too can be confusing. Too either follows straight after the word it refers to, as in Germans are well-educated, and hard-working too, or at the end of the clause: Germans are hard-working, Poles are hard-working too, even though it is not hard-working that is emphasized but Poles. You can also write or say Poles too are hard-working.

The punctuation, happily, is simpler. Whatever position too is in, there is very rarely any need to comma it off, since there is rarely any pause in speech — the usual reason for commas in writing — or risk of ambiguity. I’ve heard a thin case for Poles are hard-working, too: the comma, supposedly shows (how, exactly?) that it’s Poles who are the ‘extra’ in this clause, not their quality as workers. But thin that is. And as for the notion, dear to my late employer, The Economist, that any and every final too must be preceded by a comma — well, my old mates can be right in their mid-Atlantic worldview, but they can be just too too wrong about English punctuation too.