Too, it’s a strange usage

Reading John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, I was struck by the use of too in this passage:

Common wisdom would indicate that she should be a little apprehensive but her instincts tell her differently; this person wishes her no harm. Too, she hasn’t felt inclined toward apprehension lately. She has quickly faded into an observational fatalism — or is it bland apathy? She doesn’t really care.

Too is used this way — as a sentence adverb at the start of a clause — on at least one other occasion in the book. The usage has some currency: the Shorter OED has a line from Robert Ludlum (“Too, the windows were not that close to one another”), but I wondered how acceptable the language authorities consider it.

The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition) says it “cannot be called incorrect, but some critics consider it awkward”. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says it’s “rather stiff when compared with besides, moreover, also, and the like”.

Garner’s Modern American Usage finds there is “a tendency in facile journalism to use the word this way”, and recommends that we use also, and, or words such as moreover, further, and furthermore.

Lest the recency illusion take hold, I should point out that this is by no means a new idiom. Robert Burchfield, who edited the four-volume OED Supplement, says it had

a long and untroubled history from OE until the 17C. […] at which point it became rare or obsolete, only to be revived in the 20C., chiefly in AmE.

Burchfield quotes several examples, including one from the New Yorker: “But, too, he was a charmer.” But is this usage a charmer? It’s certainly not wrong, but it sounds slightly strange to my ears, probably because I encounter it so rarely.

The last source I checked is the last I’ll quote from: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Its inclusion of examples from the NY Times Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated suggests that the idiom is seen principally in journalism, but I haven’t explored this in any depth.

the OED Supplement shows that such usage has been revived in the 20th century, originally in American English but now in British English as well. No grammatical objection can be made to it, and the practice is clearly standard. Whatever problems it causes have to do with idiom — which it to say that, because of its relative rarity, it sounds peculiar to some people.

This chimes with my own feelings about it. Whether or not to use it is a matter of style and personal preference. I don’t plan to adopt it in my own speech or writing, but I have no problems at all with its occasional appearance in my reading material.

How about you — do you ever use it, and how do you find it?

Edit:

From Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet: “Too, driving into the canyon of vacated plazas of downtown Los Angeles felt suitably solemn and irrevocable.”

Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: “Too, according to psychologists, on average about 3 percent of any population have psychopathic tendencies, so you can be sure that some of those in the recruitment line will be psychopaths.”

Martin Amis’s Night Train has a couple of examples: “Too, I buzzed Linda, asking her to greet the elevator and bring the Colonel right on in.” “Too, I’d washed my hair the night before, and had an early one.”

Despite his father Kingsley Amis’s warning, in The King’s English: “Never begin a fresh sentence with too followed by a comma, to mean something like further or also. Not even Americans should be allowed to get away with that.”

28 Responses to Too, it’s a strange usage

  1. Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

    I certainly would not use it. But then, I still have some difficulty accepting the use of ‘also’ at the beginning of a sentence – having grown up (I’ve just turned 66) regarding it as a Germanism. (I speak German.)

    I am unconvinced by Dr Burchfield’s view that “But, too, he was a charmer” is an example of the same usage. I would regard it as acceptable BE, but I’m not sure why. (I have been suspicious of Dr B ever since I heard him and Marghanita Laski collectively pooh-poohing the idea that a twelve-year-old boy who had rung the phone-in programme on which they were the ‘experts’ had actually heard people talking about ‘the flu’ (as opposed to just ‘flu’).)

  2. Brendan Strong says:

    I’ve encountered this usage of “too” in about 3 general areas that I can recall. As you suggest in your post, it is very rare.

    The first is in fiction. A couple of authors have used it, although now I am writing this, I cannot recall their names which are just on the tip of my tongue.

    I’ve seen it more often in journalism, but generally in Features (as opposed to reporting articles). However, this may just be my perception.

    A few years ago, I worked with some American technical authors (from the telecoms space). They preferred to use “too” in the method you describe, in place of “This also…”, or “As well as…”

    My personal belief was that “too” at the beginning of the sentence is very clunky to read (and hear). They would not accept my reasoning, and we ended up replacing almost all instances of “also” (or where additional/secondary functionality was being described) with “Too” (including using “Too:” as the stem to bullet points).

    At the time, I thought this usage was quite contrived – but am glad to be corrected by yet another very interesting post. Thanks, Stan!

  3. Stan says:

    Harry: It does seem unfair of Burchfield and Laski to have dismissed the boy’s observation. That the New Yorker example doesn’t begin with too makes it different, but I can’t say exactly what effect (if any) the “But,” has on too‘s grammatical and stylistic functions. I’m not sure what you mean by Germanism here, unless you’re referring to the German word also (“so”, “well”), which often appears at the start of a sentence. In any case, the idiom is evidently standard in English, though like you I wouldn’t use it.

    Brendan: I’ve come across it now and then over the years, but not until I read Leaving Las Vegas did I take particular notice of it. I’m grateful for your useful reports of where you’ve seen it. I don’t know why it should be singled out from its peers as being ill-advised in sentence-initial position, aside from the circular reasoning of its rarity and its consequent awkwardness to eyes unused to seeing it there. It may be enjoying a (very) modest revival, but it seems unlikely for now to become commonplace — despite the efforts of your former employers!

  4. Mark Allen says:

    I didn’t stumble or raise an eyebrow when I read your tweet of the title. I wondered what else the unnamed “it” was other than a strange usage. I don’t recall ever starting a sentence with “Too,” but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that I had. So, it may be unusual, but I don’t find it troubling. It might sound pretentious to some, but a bit of mild pretension here and there keeps things interesting.

  5. I can only recall coming across this usage from one source, namely mentalist Craig Browning, who uses it habitually (link to a Google Search result that illustrates the point).

  6. I’ve never seen too used in this manner before. It doesn’t look or sound right to me.

  7. johnwcowan says:

    I have no trouble with it in writing, though I wouldn’t write it myself. I can’t imagine saying it or hearing it.

  8. languagehat says:

    It’s not common, but I’ve run across it quite a bit and it sounds fine to me (though it’s not part of my idiolect). I think this is a classic case of “it sounds slightly strange to my ears, probably because I encounter it so rarely”; you, of course, are able to leave it at that, but a lot of people go instantly into attack mode (“I’m not familiar with it, so it’s WRONG and MUST BE EXTERMINATED!”).

  9. Steve Hall says:

    I agree with some commenters that it’s not as uncommon as some think: I’ve read it several times, and may have incorporated it in my own writing. Unusual? Certainly. Awkward? Perhaps to “virgin ears.” But because it has nearly the same meaning as “also,” I don’t understand why anyone would consider it incorrect.

    I thought it might be a usage employed by William F. Buckley Jr., but then I realized he would have at least begun his sentences with “In addition . . .”

  10. Alan Gunn says:

    Ludlum not only used it himself, he had several of his characters use it in their writing (letters, memorandums, etc.), which doesn’t seem like the right thing to do with an unusual practice. But Ludlum was a very awkward writer. I think Neal Stephenson uses it occasionally as well.

  11. languagehat says:

    But he didn’t think of it as “an unusual practice,” he thought of it as part of the English language. Most people don’t do linguistic research before writing a novel, they just write the way that comes naturally to them. Furthermore, it’s not an example of his being an awkward writer, it’s just a construction that’s not part of your idiolect.

  12. Oisín says:

    Like Stan and others, I haven’t come across it much and (so) wouldn’t be inclined to use it myself, but I sometimes see it in foreign students’ essays I’m correcting. Along with many other similar debatable word usages I usually end up ‘correcting’ it out of fear that their using it in an official exam situation could be deemed incorrect by the marker. I should really put a poster on the classroom wall saying “It’s not wrong, but…”!

  13. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    There’s an implied “that” in sentence-initial use. I think it’s more natural in conversation. I’ve never used it(AmE), but it is in use as an alternative to “also,” or “moreover.”

  14. Stan says:

    Mark: I agree about mild pretension: a little can be a good thing. I get the impression that the usage is more widespread in AmE than elsewhere, which would explain why it’s normal to the point of invisibility to American commenters.

    Adrian: Thanks for the link. For a moment, I took the word mentalist to mean “crazy person”, possibly because of Alan Partridge.

    Jams: It might take a few exposures before the usage begins to seem acceptable!

    John: I imagine there’s a very uneven distribution between written and spoken instances. It would take greater corpus fu than mine to establish this.

    Hat: The “attack mode” you refer to is something I wonder about sometimes: what motivates us to universalize our pet preferences? Presumably it’s a lot of things, such as a craving for certainty (or an aversion to uncertainty) and a bias toward(s) one’s own ways and mannerisms, be they linguistic or otherwise.

    Steve: It’s uncommon in my experience, which may be principally because of geography. Although I’ve seen it several times before, it’s not yet familiar enough to look fully normal to me. There are probably people who consider it incorrect, but they’re keeping quiet about it so far!

    Alan: Thanks. I’ve read a book or two by Ludlum and Stephenson, but I don’t recall noticing the usage in their writing. As languagehat says, I’m sure the expression just came naturally to Ludlum; I don’t imagine he anticipated anyone finding it peculiar.

    Oisín: Interesting. I guess I’m not surprised it appears in foreign students’ writing, since it’s synonymous with several other terms that are commonly used to open a sentence. Arguing against it quickly becomes circular: you don’t use that idiom because… people don’t use that idiom. But in your position I would probably advise against it for safety’s sake, as you do. I like your poster idea — or maybe it would make for a good classroom discussion.

    Marc: Is there? I don’t see the implied that. I wonder what factors affect its availability in AmE. I expect it’s heard (that is, written) more in some states and contexts than others.

  15. languagehat says:

    There’s an implied “that” in sentence-initial use.

    I don’t know what this means, but I seriously doubt it’s true.

  16. Alan Gunn says:

    If Ludlum thought this usage was so common that it made sense to have many of his characters use it, he wasn’t paying attention to the way most people write. This isn’t a criticism of his using “too” to begin a sentence, it’s a criticism of his accuracy in portraying characters. Lots of people I know use “ain’t”; sometimes I use it myself. But it would be a mistake to write a book in which a college professor used “ain’t” in a letter applying for a grant.

    My describing Ludlum as an awkward writer wasn’t based on just this, though, it was a reference to his writing overall. His oddest quirk may have been his excessive use of italics. This was meant, I suppose, to show words that his characters stressed when speaking, but he often italicized words that few if any native speakers of English would stress. And anyone who stressed as many words as his characters often did would be too worn out from speaking to perform the amazing physical feats they need to survive the dangers they face. Great action plots though; his books made movies that were better than the books themselves.

  17. Garrett Wollman says:

    It definitely sounds quite odd to me, and looks odd, too, which makes me doubly surprised that the revival of this usage is said to originate in AmE. It’s definitely the sort of thing I would have expected my parochial-school teachers to have marked as an error (irrespective of the fact that it’s a perfectly respectable, if rare, usage).

  18. wisewebwoman says:

    I’ve read it in more modern authors but for the life of me can’t recall names. When I read it I mentally put a slight emphasis on it, is that author intent? I don’t know. But I don’t find it disruptive at all.
    XO
    WWW

  19. I’ve actually read ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ but I don’t remember seeing this. I do remember the woman’s name was ‘Sarah’ spelt ‘Sera’. (Which reminds me of ‘Tara’ sounding like ‘terror’ in an American tv series.)
    Very poignant book, I thought. Too, I think it’s a shame Mr O’Brien left us just the one gem.

    It sounds strange to me – just as ‘but’ sounds to me on the end of a sentence, as some Australians use it.

  20. Jared Mulhair says:

    My American ears have never heard it spoken, but my eyes have seen it written and simply dismissed it as a rare idiom — as rare and odd as when some writers (mostly Canadians, it would seem) begin sentences with “as well.”

  21. Stan says:

    Alan: Sometimes ordinary or mediocre books make better films than great books do. I don’t remember Ludlum’s writing well enough to comment on the overuse of italics, but I suppose it could be worse: he might have used capitals.

    Garrett: It evidently hasn’t developed into a popular usage, in U.S. English or elsewhere, but it seems equally unlikely to disappear outright. I wonder if most teachers tend to flag it as incorrect.

    WWW: I don’t know if particular emphasis is intended, but a certain amount is inevitable because of stress patterns in English. All the alternatives — also, moreover, further, in addition, etc. — have one stressed syllable and at least one unstressed one; and, which in this position would normally be used without a comma or dash, is unstressed; too is 100% stressed syllable.

    Ashley: Yes, it was a very sad story, the more affecting because of what lay behind it for the author. I like your point about but at the end of a sentence, which mirrors initial-too somehow. I’ve seen people write this in a joking sort of way, and also as thoughbut.

    Jared: So far, it would appear to be restricted to written English — no one has reported hearing it spoken. It is, as you say, a rare idiom. As well at the start of a sentence is an interesting comparison.

  22. Sean Jeating says:

    – Ich denke auch, daß Sprache zum besseren Verständnis zwar Regeln braucht – Regeln im Sinne von ‘sprachlichen Leitplanken’ –, aber keine Dogmata.
    Auch ich denke, daß Sprache zum besseren Verständnis zwar Regeln braucht – Regeln im Sinne von ‘sprachlichen Leitplanken’ –, aber keine Dogmata.
    – Daß Sprache zum besseren Verständnis zwar Regeln braucht – Regeln im Sinne von ‘sprachlichen Leitplanken’ –, aber keine Dogmata, denke ich auch.

    See the auchs?
    In English the above reads:
    – I think, too, that for the sake of better understanding language does need rules – rule in the sense of linguistic crash barriers –, but no dogmata.
    Too I think that …
    – That language* for the sake of better understanding does need rules – rule in the sense of linguistic crash barriers –, but no dogmata, I do** think, too.

    *Would everybody have noticed that I let ‘language’ jump forward? :)
    ** Would everybody have noticed that I added ‘do’ for emphasis? :)

    Conclusion: Sometimes the word order will be chosen for matters of style, sometimes to emphasise this or that, and sometimes the speaker / writer will (hardly) know what s/he is talking / writing about.

    Too you think so? :)

  23. Sean Jeating says:

    Ahem. There’s an ‘s’ missing.
    Good to know it will be forgiven with a lenient smile.
    Twice even.

  24. The Ridger says:

    @Marc Leavitt: The example Stan give is “Too, she hasn’t felt inclined toward apprehension lately.” There’s really no place for a “that” in this sentence. Mostly, “too” used initially is interchangeable with “as well” or even “and also”.

  25. Edward says:

    Stan, I just stumbled upon your blog looking for an explanation on “not only… but also”.
    It was impossible not to follow/subscribe, and since I’m not a native writer/speaker I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to learn from your texts.
    :)

  26. Stan says:

    Sean: A lovely German lesson, and I agree entirely with its conclusions. The (noticeable) do does emphasise, and it also adds rhyme and rhythm, assonance and a hint of Irishness. If the missing ‘s’ needs forgiveness, then forgiveness it has, twice over and more — but I don’t think it even needs it. :-)

    Edward: Welcome, and thanks very much for subscribing! I hope you find the blog helpful or interesting. There’s all sorts of random language-related material in the archives, if you ever feel like a wander.

  27. Jay says:

    Starting a sentence with “Too.” I’ve used this in many of my books, some published by big houses. The only complaint I’ve heard was from the UK. So, it’s probably a “side of the Atlantic” thing.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Jay: It does seem to be a bit more common and generally accepted on the US side. I don’t think it will never feel fully idiomatic to me, but I know there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it.

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