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In phrases of the form "too X to Y" (e.g. "too big to fail"), can "too" ever be replaced by a word such as "exceedingly", e.g. "exceedingly big to fail"? It sounds wrong to me, although "exceedingly big" on its own sounds certainly correct.

If it isn't correct, how else can I express in formal writing that something is "too X to Y" by a large margin? "Much too X to Y" sounds informal.

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    Overly large to fail, or overly big to fail. Jun 27, 2017 at 17:42
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    No, and "much too" is just fine for formal contexts.
    – Kevin
    Jun 27, 2017 at 17:42
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    I think "much too X to Y" and "too X to Y by a large margin" are both fine.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 27, 2017 at 17:43
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    Also, I have to disagree with @WayfaringStranger; "overly _ to _" sounds awkward at best.
    – Kevin
    Jun 27, 2017 at 17:44
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    Formal writing expects the reader to know the difference between too and to. "can too ever be replaced by a word" and still have 99% of the population understand that phrase? No.
    – Mazura
    Jun 27, 2017 at 23:18

5 Answers 5

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Too in the too Adj to VP construction is a negative word.

If something is too big to fail, then it's so big that it can't/won't/shouldn't/must not fail.
The negative is part of the meaning; the modal (can, will, should, etc.) is supplied by context.

This is related to the so Adj that S and such NP that S construction, as in

  • It was so spicy (that) I couldn't eat it.
  • It was such spicy food (that) I couldn't eat it.

The too construction uses an infinitive VP instead of a whole tensed clause like the so/such construction, but the sense is the same, except for the hidden negative and modal in the too construction.

But they're all idiomatic constructions and don't follow other grammatical rules.
Consequently *exceedingly big to fail doesn't work at all.

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    +1, There's other of those deitic degree words that would work with a negative indexing clause--for example, that: "It was that spicy I couldn't eat it". Btw, is there a typo in your last para? I couldn't parse it. Jun 27, 2017 at 19:55
  • That spicy occurs in that construction in some local variations; I've read it, though not heard it. Jun 27, 2017 at 23:06
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    In British English replacing "it was so spicy..." by "it was that spicy..." occurs in some dialects, but it can give the impression that the speaker is "not very well educated". I've heard it, but never seen it written, except when recording the exact words that someone had said.
    – alephzero
    Jun 28, 2017 at 3:55
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    The attribution of "not very well educated" is normally just code for "lower class" or "minority". Language variation is grist for the ingroup solidarity mill. Jun 28, 2017 at 16:57
  • @JohnLawler I'm not sure which would be considered more offensive in Britain, to describe someone as 'not very well educated' or as 'lower class'. Neither term is much used by professionals. More acceptable are 'working-class', 'middle class' or the use of defined socio-economic categories of A,B,C1,C2,C3 etc. My preferred way of describing the type of idiom here, would be to say it was part of a 'working-class register'.
    – WS2
    Jul 30, 2021 at 23:01
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Not really. You could extend it to "much too X to Y" or "far too X to Y" as @GEdgar suggested, but any adverbs that might fit lack the comparative nature of "too," which is required for the "to."

The good news is that it's perfectly fine to use even in the most formal circumstances.

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  • "far too" to me sounds slightly more formal than "much too", although according to the Cambridge Dictionary the former is just stronger than the latter. Either way, I think I'll go with that, thank you.
    – smheidrich
    Jun 27, 2017 at 20:08
  • It might 'sound informal', but it isn't. +1
    – Mazura
    Jun 27, 2017 at 23:13
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I think a re-phrasing works best, such as:

  • "Bound to succeed by sheer size, despite other hallmarks of failure."
  • "Unable to consummate the act due to gross intoxication."

Why? I agree with others here that too X to Y is difficult to re-cast, and it seems that it has become a phrasal of sorts; a familiar saying. Try replacing "cats" in "raining cats and dogs". Just drawing an analogy, not being formal.

You asked for a word -- I don't have one. But you also asked how to express this if another word was not handy. I believe that too X to Y is handy largely because it replaces other constructions which are normally not nearly comfortable enough for common usage.

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Perhaps you could use exceedingly if you change to to for, and the final verb to a noun. For example, "...too big to fail..." becomes "...exceedingly large for failure..."

In this case, one might also replace too with unduly. The exaple works better with more sophistocated text, though: "...the task becomes unduly monotonous for continuation; one might better find themselves regurgitating facts with an air of...").

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A late answer, but “too big to fail” is a quotation so it loses impact if rephrased.

Per other responses, “so large it cannot be permitted to fail” would be a more formal way of expressing the same thing.

But the “too … to …” construction is completely acceptable in formal writing.

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