The adverb too, as common and as useful as it is, can also be a source of irritation for editors. As an intensifier meaning “excessively” or “more than necessary” (“Oh that this too too solid flash drive would melt!”) it doesn’t lead to many problems except in its overuse. But when it’s used to mean “also” (“I bet you thought I’d mess up that soliloquy too, but I didn’t.”) or as an affirmative “so” (“You did, too!”), it can cause minor headaches, especially when it appears at the end of a sentence.
It’s a conundrum editors face all the time: Should there or should there not be a comma before the word too?
Writers, editors, and other word folk have attempted to either identify or impose some sort of useful distinction on the presence and absence of that little smudge of a punctuation mark. As one argument goes, when a sentence-ending too refers to an object in the predicate, it should be preceded by a comma, but when it refers to the subject, it should not. By this so-called rule
That’s a lot to expect of a comma.
While that “rule” could be a useful distinction for the purposes of editing, it simply isn’t realistic; readers won’t see the difference. Plus, the presence or absence of a comma cannot account for every meaning this sentence might hold. Either with or without the comma, that too could refer to practically any of the previous words in the sentence. In addition to the two previous versions, it could mean that the subject wants to see the world’s longest nose hair in addition to:
The problem is that the example statement has no context. When it comes down to it, that’s the only thing that can clear up what a sentence that ends with too really means: It’s the context, not the comma.
Even with context, though, there are ways to clarify the meaning. If rewriting it is an option, you might rewrite it completely, or simply shift that too: “I too want to see the world’s longest nose hair.”
That edit clears up the meaning, but it also presents another comma conundrum. Should a too that appears within the sentence be surrounded by commas? Should it read, “I, too, want to see the world’s longest nose hair”?
This question is easier to answer, but that answer is one of style and intention, not grammar. If you need to indicate an abrupt change in thought or direction, or if you intend to emphasize the word before too, those commas should be dropped in. Or if the rhythm of the sentence would benefit from a pause around the word too, put those commas in. Otherwise, they aren’t necessary.
So how do we answer the title of this post, “Does this title need a comma too?” Imagine the title were preceded by “The post’s first sentence has a comma in it.” Would your answer change if it were preceded instead by “This title already has a question mark in it”?
There really is no single correct answer here. Each sentence-ending too is a unique case, and you must consider more than grammar to decide whether to put a comma before it.
But don’t worry over it too much. Regardless of which treatment you choose, when the story finally goes to print, the other option will always look better.
This article was originally posted to Copyediting.com on 11/14/18.
Header photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.