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A colleague of mine just asked me about the sentence:

If the book were not so expensive, I would buy it.

She wanted to know why too was not a worthy substitute. I explained to her about the degree of intensity in too vs. so but I know there's something more to it than that. Is there something in the conditionality of the book costing more than I can pay that makes so the superior choice? Any input on this?

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4 Answers

Using so makes the sentence negative- the sentence explains why you won't be buying the book.

Using too makes the sentence positive- the sentence explains the conditions under which you will buy the book.

Implicit in the use of too is a limit. It establishes some price above which your decision to purchase changes. So does not say anything about a decision point- rather it comments on the price relative to expectations or means but you may or may not decide to purchase even given the price.

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When using "too" there is an implication that the speaker does not currently know the actual cost of the book. Using "so" implies that the speaker does know the cost. –  oosterwal Jun 23 '12 at 20:03
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I'm not sure that one choice is "superior". It's more that they mean slightly different things.

If you use "so", it implies that you have some kind of notion of how much the book actually costs and you are making a statement that, because of that cost, you have decided not to buy it.

If you use "too", it implies that you don't have an idea of how much the book costs, but when in informed of the actual price, at that point you would make the decision.

Incidentally, I don't think this has much to do with the 'subjunctive' as such: if you use "wasn't" but still hypothetically, I think the above still essentially holds.

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I don't think the difference is limited only to the Subjunctive, or that the Conditional has anything to do with it.

You probably already answered your colleague this way. To say "The book is SO expensive" is to say that the book is very expensive. On the other hand, "The book is TOO expensive" means it is extremely expensive.

One could also look at it like this: "I have the money to buy that book but it's SO expensive so I won't" while "That book is TOO expensive for anybody to afford it (or nobody in his right mind would buy it)." That's why it will depend on the situation.

In any case, the same difference extends to the Conditional:

"If the book weren't so expensive, I'd buy it." and "If the book weren't too expensive, I'd spend the extra money to buy it."

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Too, doesn't really mean "extremely' it means "above one's limit" and what is "too expensive" for some may be well within means for others. –  Jim Jun 21 '12 at 13:50
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Perhaps the distinction you're looking for is that the word too in this context would mean that it is excessive. In other words overpriced, and not simply expensive.

If something is expensive, but not overpriced, the word so would certainly be more appropriate.

If something is easily affordable, but overpriced, it might make sense to use the word too. However, the fact that the item is easily affordable means that despite the word so not directly implying overpriced, it is easily inferred.

In conclusion, although too might be appropriate in some situations; in others it isn't. As such it would be less likely to be heard, and if ever heard would "sound wrong".

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