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The Indo-European languages that I know (Dutch, English, German, French, Spanish) all make a distinction between "too" (meaning "to a higher degree than is desirable, acceptable or allowed") and "very"(it is "used for emphasis").

However, I have noticed that at least two of my Chinese language partners did not make this distinction when speaking German. For example, while looking at the price of a book on a website, one said, "Oh, too expensive." On another occasion, another said, "I'm too tired", but upon further questioning, it turned out that she meant "very tired".

When I asked one of my language partners explicitly what the difference was between "zu" (German for "too") and "sehr" (German for "very"), he answered without a shred of hesitation that they meant the same thing. (The origin of this confusion - from a Western point of view - appears to be that 太 tài can be used to mean either.)

I have tried to explain the difference in German with some example sentences, but since the problem is not specific to German, I would like to know how others have tried to explain the difference (in German, English, French, Spanish, etc.).

  • Good question, but I wonder if it's a better fit for ELL. I have the same problem explaining these concepts to Spanish-language speakers, where the normal translation of 'too' is 'demasiado' which just means 'to a great degree', not necissarily 'more than desirable'. – Flimzy Aug 3 '16 at 17:51
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    Possible duplicate: ell.stackexchange.com/q/19898/69 – Flimzy Aug 3 '16 at 17:52
  • @Flimzy Thanks for the pointer to the ELL SE. However, as you have noticed, my question is not specific to English. – Christophe Strobbe Aug 3 '16 at 18:05
  • Same in Modern Greek. Usually they will say 'πάρα πολύ' which simply means 'very much'. I always thought that Greeks just don't have the concept of 'too much' :-D Anyway, if you really want to put a strong emphasis on 'too much' you could use 'τρέχεις υπερβολικά γρήγορα' which translates to 'you are going excessively fast'. Or just be a real Greek and simply say 'Τι τρέχεις σαν τρελός; Μαλάκα, θα μας πας στο γκρεμό!' (something like: 'Why are you racing like a lunatic? You're going to take us down the cliff, you BEEEEEEEEP!) – J.Past Aug 3 '16 at 19:53
  • As a Chinese speaker, I use "tài" for "too" and "hò" (sorry, I only know the Cantonese pronunciation of that word) for "very". On another thought, the word in Mandarin might be "hao", but I am not sure. – SMS von der Tann Aug 3 '16 at 22:57
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Sometimes an image speaks to people. Maybe try something like this.

Try this...

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    What happened to the guy? Too much of lack of oxygen or something? Words and pictures work as well – Anthony Pham Aug 6 '16 at 13:57
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    Too much lack of oxygen. Too much water. Maybe too much alcohol. People have died in fermenting vats. – J.Past Aug 6 '16 at 18:42
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    Note that while "too much" can only be used to describe the right-hand picture, "very much" actually works for both. – michau Oct 7 '16 at 22:54
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I have explained this to one Chinese friend, but I have explained it often to myself as i try to master the usage of 太 in Chinese.

The basic difference in English is just that "very" does not say whether the amount is good or bad or just right, while "too" says the amount is bad and less would be better.

But nuance comes into it. If I say "the soup is very salty" people will usually understand me to mean salty soup is not good, the same as if I had said "the soup is too salty."

If I say "you are being too nice to me!" people will usually understand me to mean being nice always good and I could as well have said you are very nice to me.

The nuanced expressions get some of their force from the fact that they go against the basic meaning of the words.

But the basic difference remains: unless there is some clear implication from the context, "very" does not say whether the amount is good or bad, and "too" does say it is bad.

If I say some clam chowder is "very clammy tasting" people are likely to ask me "Well, is that good or bad?" If I say it is bad they will think I could as well have said it is "too clammy." If I say it is good they will think, right, I am saying it is very good.

If I say "you are too nice to me, you should stop" then again people will ask me to explain: is there something wrong with being nice?

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I have learned "too" as 太 (tai) and "very" as 很 (hen). But if 太 can be used as both, I would suggest explaining the difference as the difference between these answers when someone is asking you if you are up for doing something:

"I'm very tired" and "I'm too tired" is the same difference as between saying "我是太累了" and "不,我是太累了".

The difference is in the inherent "no" or "too much" when saying "too" instead of "very".

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