The words "to," "too," and "two" are homophones: they sound alike but have different meanings. The preposition "to" refers to a place, direction, or position. The particle "to" is used before the verb in a to-infinitive. The adverb "too" means also, very, extremely, or additionally.
"Two" refers to the number 2. It's probably the easiest one to remember, maybe because it doesn't look like it should rhyme with "to" and "too." It can be confusing for English language learners, and even native English speakers, to distinguish and use these terms.
How to Use To
"To" is a preposition or part of a verb infinitive. For example,
- The boy went "to" the store "to" buy groceries.
The first usage is a preposition. It starts a prepositional phrase explaining where the boy went. The second usage is as a particle - that is, "to" in this use is part of the verb "to buy."
How to Use Too
"Too" means also or in addition. For example,
- Did you want "to" come with us "too"?
- That new shirt you bought is "too" cute for words!
In the top sentence, the first "to" is a particle (as described above); it is part of the verb "to come." The word "too" in the first example means also, additionally, or as well. In the second example, the word "too" is used as an adverb. It describes, or modifies, the verb "cute" and means "very" or "extremely."
How to Use Two
The word "two" always refers to numerical 2. For example:
- He had only "two" cents to his name.
- There were only "two" hours to go until the train would arrive.
In the first example, the word "two" describes the number of pennies this person had left. In the second, the word "two" refers to the number of hours until the train arrived.
How to Remember the Differences
The confusion between "to" and "too" is one of the most common homophone errors in written English, as many people get stuck deciding between them (even native English speakers struggle with it). One easy trick to remember: If you mean to say "too" as in "additionally," "very," or "also," remember that that word "too" (also) has more Os than the word "to." Think of the extra O as meaning a little extra or additional.
To differentiate "too" from "to," look at the sentence without it, and even read it aloud to better engage your ear. Does it still make sense as a sentence? Examine this example:
- "She's such a copycat," Sondra lamented, "because when I went 'to' the store 'to' stand in line for the new phone, she did, 'too.'"
You can omit the "too," and the sentence still makes sense. That is not the case if you remove either of the uses of the word "to." You wouldn't say, "Because I went ____ the store… " or "Because I went to the store ____ stand… " When you read either phrase aloud, your ear detects a dropped word-as indicated by the blank lines-even if your eye skips over it. The sentence needs the prepositional "to," in the first use, in order to show where she went (to the store), and the particle "to" in order to create an infinitive verb, "to stand."
Additionally, you can tell whether you need "to" or "too" by substituting the word also "also." In the above example, you could say:
- Because when I went "to" the store "to" stand in line for the new phone, she did, "also."
This sentence still makes sense when you can swap out "also" for "too." It would not make sense, however, to replace either the prepositional use of "to" (to the store) or the particle use (to stand), with the word "also," as in:
- Because when I went "also" the store "also" stand in line for the new phone, she did, too.
Clearly, you need to word "to" in these uses, not "too."
Differentiating between "to," "too," and "two" allows us to use the right terms in the right way and at the appropriate times, even in the same sentence. Consider the following examples to deepen your understanding of the distinction between the three terms:
- You can squeeze all three terms into a sentence that make sense, as in, "We determined that we 'two' had celebrated a little 'too' much, and so we decided 'to' call a cab 'to' come and take us 'to' her parents' house 'to' recover." This example uses the word "two" indicating a number (we two), the word "too" as an adverb (too much), the word to as a particle - a part of an infinitive verb - several times (to call, to come, and to recover), and as a preposition (to her parents' house).
- A sentence you would be more likely to encounter might state, "The game was almost 'too' exciting in the last 'two' minutes of play." The word "too" in the sentence as used here is an adverb modifying the word "exciting" (too exciting), and "two" is used in its traditional role to indicate the number 2.
- Another sentence you might hear in everyday conversation might say, "Please let us know if you 'two' plan 'to' go 'to' the race because we want 'to' tag along, 'too.'" The first of the three terms here, "two" refers to the number of people, the second and fourth are particles (to go and to tag), the third is a prepositional use (to the race), and the fifth is used as an adjective meaning also (tag along too).
As these are such widely-used words, the three terms also appear in a number of idiomatic expressions in English. Here are a few:
- Too little, too late is an expression meaning that even though help (for example) arrived, it wasn't enough and it wasn't timely enough to make a difference in the effort to recover. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Mississippi, President George W. Bush was criticized about the delay of the response. It was seen as too little, too late.
- Two of a kind and two peas in a pod are expressions noting how two people (for example) are alike.
- Having two left feet refers to someone who isn't a good dancer or who is clumsy.
- If you say you have too many irons in the fire, are spread too thin, or have too much on your plate, it means that you have too many concurrent projects or demands on your time currently or at once. Likewise, if you're wearing too many hats, you're trying to take on too many roles at the same time or do too many jobs at once.
- If you are in too deep, you are overwhelmed, have more than you can handle, or you know more than you should about a situation and can't get out of it easily.
- If you want to have your cake and eat it, too, you want to do two things that are opposite. You want to both possess the "cake" and consume it.
- To and fro means to move from one place to another or back and forth.
- If something is too rich for your blood, it's too expensive for you or too much for you to handle.
- If there are too many cooks (or chefs) in the kitchen, there are too many people trying to control one project or have input into something. Similarly, too many cooks spoil the broth (or stew).
- Having too much of a good thing signals that you're overindulging in something or there's just too much of something, even though it's not bad on its own. For example, a few holiday lights on the outside of a home can look lovely in their calm simplicity. Some people, however, can't seem to stop decorating and put up 100,000 strobing lights, which neighbors might joke can make the house visible from space. On a small house and lot, they're likely exhibiting too much of a good thing.
- Ticak, Marko. “To vs. Too.” Grammarly Inc., 2019.
- “To (prep.)." Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper, 2019.
- “To vs. Too vs. Two." K12 Reader, 2018.