Before discussing when to use too, too many, and too much, I first need to clear up a common mistake. Too means an excessive amount, and is therefore negative. Sometimes non-native English speakers say things like, “I had a great time yesterday. I was too happy.” This sounds strange, because happy is a positive adjective, and in most circumstances, you can’t have too much happiness. In this case, “I was very happy” sounds more natural. We only use too when suggesting there is an excessively high amount of something, e.g. “My stomach hurts. I ate too much.”
So in what circumstances do we use these three different versions of too? The image below summarises the main points, and they are explained in more detail below.
Too is used before an adjective to state that there is an excessive amount. If a 16-year-old tries to go to a pub, s/he might be turned away for being too young. Even though being young is usually seen as a good thing, for the purpose of entering a bar, it isn’t, so we can use too in this situation. Likewise, although I said in the opening paragraph that too happy sounds strange in most circumstances, there are rare situations in which it might be used. If you saw someone laughing and joking at a funeral, you’d probably think s/he looked too happy. Pay attention to the phrase ‘excessive amount.’ If you saw someone crying at a funeral, you wouldn’t say they looked too sad. Sadness is normal in that situation, so, “She looks very sad,” is more normal. Remember: you can only use too with gradable adjectives.
Too many is used before countable nouns. Countable nouns are – like the name suggests – nouns that can be counted. It is possible to count apples, cars, and people (as opposed to air, which is uncountable), so they can all be preceded by too many. If you eat too many apples, you’ll probably be sick. Maybe, like me, you hate going shopping at weekends because there are too many people. Lots of people think there are too many cars on the road, so they encourage people to use public transport. Again, notice that in all three situations there is an excessively large number of each noun, i.e. they are all negative situations.
Too much can be used before uncountable nouns. If there is too much water on your roof, you might get a leak. Many people believe that Beijing and Seoul have too much pollution. As with too and too many, you’ll notice that there are negative connotations with too much. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of water on your roof or pollution in a city, but in the above examples, there is an excessively high amount.
Too much is also used after verbs without objects. You might hear someone say, “I’m too tired. Yesterday I danced too much.” A good teacher might tell you not to study too much (everyone’s brain needs some time to recover). But you need to be careful that there’s no countable noun after the verb. “I played
too much games” is wrong. Because of the presence of a countable noun, we need to use too many, i.e. “I played too many games.” You can also say, “I played too much,” because played doesn’t have an object.
Try the following examples and write your answers in the comments below. I’ll let you know whether you’re right or wrong.
- Yesterday I ate ________________.
- I am ________________ old to stay up late.
- She drank ________________ coffee, so she feels sick now.
- ________________ cooks spoil the broth.
- If you feel ________________ sleepy, you should probably stop and go to bed.
- I have ________________ to do.
- When there are ________________ people around, I get claustrophobic.
- It’s _______________ dark in here. I can’t see anything.
- Please don’t take ________________ sweets. Leave some for the next class.
- That shopping centre was _______________ expensive for me.