1

I had too many things to do that I couldn’t finish them all
I had so many things to do that I couldn’t finish them all

What is correct? My teacher said that it is the second one but in my opinion, the first one fits better because of the phrase

I couldn’t finish them all

1

[i] * I had too many things to do that I couldn’t finish them all

[ii] I had so many things to do that I couldn’t finish them all

There is a grammatical explanation for "so" being correct and not "too". The clause in bold is a delayed complement. It's called 'delayed' because it does not immediately follow the element that licenses it, but is 'delayed' to the end of the sentence (the matrix clause). In your example [ii], the delayed complement is licensed by the adverb "so" that modifies "many things". But "too" cannot licence a that clause complement in a construction like this, which is why [i] is ungrammatical.

You can tell that it's "so" that licenses the complement because if we drop it, the sentence becomes ungrammatical (* I had many things to do that I couldn’t finish them all).

  • Could you explain what the complements "that I couldn’t finish them all" are completing? – Roaring Fish Dec 28 '15 at 11:17
  • @Roaring Fish It's a complement in clause structure. – BillJ Dec 28 '15 at 11:27
  • Okay, but complements complete. That is why they are called complements, and as such cannot be removed from the sentence as it would be left, by definition, incomplete. "That I couldn’t finish them all" doesn't complete anything that I can see, and can be removed to leave complete sentence: "I had too/so many things to do". – Roaring Fish Dec 28 '15 at 11:36
  • @Roaring Fish No, complements have to be licensed by some element. The that clause in the OP's example is licensed by so. Complements may be optional or obligatory. – BillJ Dec 28 '15 at 11:39
  • From here > semanticsarchive.net/Archive/GZhNGUxZ/dowty.Oslo.pdf "a complement is an “obligatory element” [...]*a complement “completes” the meaning of its head." From here > ucd.ie/artspgs/introling/engsyndraft.pdf "‘complement’ refers to an obligatory dependent clause or phrase relative to a head." From wikipedia: "a complement can be understood as a word, phrase or clause that is necessary to complete the meaning of a given expression." As the example clause can be removed, it is neither completing anything nor obligatory. How do you justify calling it a complement? – Roaring Fish Dec 28 '15 at 12:03
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Your teacher is correct. The first sentence would be correct if you shortened it to this:

I had too many things to do.

You could also say this, which has just about the same meaning (though it would probably be better if you added an exclamation point):

I had so many things to do!

But if you want to add "I couldn't finish them all," you would want to use so...

I had so many things to do that I couldn’t finish them all.

However, I'm not sure if you need the word "that." It sounds awkward to me. Maybe someone else can answer that.

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My reading of it is there are two different meanings.

"I had too many things to do."

Indicates that your workload was over-extended to the point that you could no longer cope.

"I had so many things to do!"

Indicates that you were just extremely busy with your workload, but at an achievable level.

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