“To the death.”
To the ear they sound the same?but when written down, they can cause confusion and a whole lot of misspellings. This week we’ll take a closer look at how to avoid making errors when using these three homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently): two, to, and too.
The easiest of the three is two, which of course refers to the number unless You’re taking the Amtrak to Toronto (the station code is the capitalized TWO). In most non-scientific situations, It’s spelled out rather than written as a numeral.
Example A: I will be with you in two minutes.
To is used in two ways. First (and most commonly), it is a preposition whose meaning can be grossly oversimplified in terms of direction or location; you can often determine this use by asking the questions “Where?” and “To what?”
Example B: I directed my complaints to the board. (Where did you direct your complaints? To the board. To what? The board.)
Example C: I am going to the store. (Where are you going? To the store. To what? The store.)
Second, to can also be part of what is called the infinitive form of a verb: to be, to play, to write, to be done.
Example D: I hope to win the lottery someday. Here, to is part of the infinitive form of the verb to win.
This example combines the two. Note that both are spelled the same (“to”):
Example E: I want to go to the store. Here, the first to is part of the infinitive to go; the second, part of the prepositional phrase to the store (Go where? To the store. To what? The store).
Too is an adverb, or a word that describes a verb, adjective (a word that describes a noun), or another adverb. Too is never used as a preposition; nor does it form part of an infinitive verb.
Example F: That pair of shoes costs too much for my budget. Here, too qualifies the adverb much (How much? Too much).
don’t be confused when too appears elsewhere than directly before the word It’s describing. Regardless of its placement in the sentence, if It’s modifying or qualifying or describing an adverb, adjective, or verb, then use too.
Example G: I, too, believe that the red shoes are too expensive. The first too qualifies the verb believe (Believe how? In what manner? Believe too); the second describes the adjective expensive. Both are adverbs, and both are spelled “too.”
Mix and Match
Now that we have the definitions down, It’s easy to distinguish among to and two and too. Remember this key rule: To is never used by itself to describe, quantify, or qualify another word. If You’re trying to do that, use too. Otherwise, to is probably the right choice (unless You’re talking about the number two).
Example H: I am too tired to attend the party. Here, we have a combination of the two: too is an adverb that qualifies the adjective tired, while to is part of the infinitive verb to attend.
Now for some errors:
Example I (Incorrect): Will you tell me if You’re going too agree? Here, to is part of the infinitive to win; too is incorrect, since the word is not qualifying or describing anything.
Example I (Corrected): Will you tell me if You’re going to agree?
Example J (Incorrect): I want to come to. Here, the first to is correct, as It’s part of the infinitive to come; but the second to is not, since it describes the verb come and therefore should be the adverb too.
Example J (Corrected): I want to come too.
A final note: since to, two, and too are all legitimate words, don’t rely on your spellchecker to make sure your spelling of these homophones is correct. Apply the general rule, ask how You’re using the word and what its role is in the sentence, and you’ll avoid confusing the three.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.