Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Too Much of a Good Thing

One of my phone conversations today ended with "Too much thank you!" and this sort of made me smile. For one thing, it's always nice to be thanked, particularly after patiently giving someone semi-complicated info over the phone. But I also tend to find a strange amusement when students say "too much" when they actually mean "very much." (At some point I'll probably make a worksheet about this very topic.)

Whenever I read or hear an error in the use of "too much," my imagination starts to go a little wild.

For example, on an evaluation form, a student might write:

"I like my teacher too much."

Really? You like your teacher so much that there's a problem with it? Is it the liking itself inappropriate? (Maybe your family or close friends feel that they pale in comparison with your much-like ESL instructor?) Or is the amount of liking what is problematic? (Maybe you like your teacher so much that it distracts you from everyday activities such as paying the bills or grocery shopping?)

I think that it could be helpful for students to think about their usage of "too much" in terms of consequences. If I say that I drank "too much" coffee, I am probably suffering some consequences such as being wide awake in the middle of the night or feeling jittery. In my own case, I could probably say "I like coffee too much" and it could be an appropriate usage. After all, I feel ill if I don't drink coffee, I dream about good coffee, I own about 6 coffee's practically an addiction. But someone who just has a normal relationship with coffee should probably just say, "I like coffee very much" or "I like coffee a lot."

Another typical ESL student comment might be something like "This class helped me too much." Interestingly enough, students who write this type of comment usually do sign up for more classes, although if we took the students at their word, we could assume that the class was so helpful that no further instruction is necessary--that, in fact, they learned so much that they could even forget about 10-20% and still be OK. Usually the student just wants to say "the class helped me very much" or something like that.

I'm not sure if there's a specific reason that students tend to make this error with "too." I assume it's just that they're overgeneralizing a form that they've learned. In addition to asking themselves if there are (negative) consequences in the situation that they describe with "too," the students should ask themselves if it really is too much of a good thing. Can a class ever really help you too much? Don't you want to really like your instructors (especially in ESL?) Is "too" the word you really want to use, or could you replace it with a word like "very" and mean what you really mean?

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