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I wonder if sentences like the ones below are correct.

  1. John is a too-good person. (Trying to mean John is a person that is too good.)
  2. He's had too-young girlfriends. (Trying to mean someone has had girlfriends that are too young.)
  3. His roommates are too-stupid people. (Trying to mean someone's roommates are people that are too stupid.)

The reason I am asking this question is, I saw this video title on YouTube:

Megan Fox Burns Will Arnett On His Too-Young Girlfriends

so I wondered if those kind of sentences are correct because I am not used to it. I am more used to a structure like:

"Megan Fox Burns Will Arnett On His Girlfriends That Are Too Young."

What is your opinion?

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    In your version there is no need for the hyphen. Linking words with hyphens turns a phrase into an 'adjective' - that never-to-be-forgotten day when... The implications of too-young girlfriends is fairly obvious, but your other examples invite the question "Too good for what? Too stupid for what?" Mar 10, 2021 at 10:42
  • @KateBunting I accidentally put the hypen in my version. Sorry. Mar 10, 2021 at 11:02
  • @KateBunting Thank you. Can't the sentences I gave also be obvious depending on the context? Mar 10, 2021 at 11:09
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    It's not helpful that two of the three "compound adjectives" here (too-good, too-stupid) are semantically problematic over and above the straightforward question of whether it's syntactically / idiomatically acceptable to use this kind of "gradable compound adjectives" attributively (before the noun), as in a too-young girlfriend, a too-big coat, a too-dirty joke. Imho it's not acceptable except in very informal contexts, but that's nothing to do with the questionable semantics of being too-good or too-stupid. Mar 10, 2021 at 13:08
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    Of relevance here is the Big Mess Construction, which despite its name, does involve perfectly acceptable syntax (to me, at least). It's just that grammarians attempting to analyse things like She made too rude a remark found that such "valid" constructions invalidated some of their cherished theories about how English syntax should be analysed. But just because He told too dirty a joke is "okay" doesn't mean that He told a too-dirty joke is also okay. Mar 10, 2021 at 14:06

5 Answers 5

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"Megan Fox Burns Will Arnett On His Girlfriends That Are Too-Young."

That is incorrect because the hyphen would not be used. It should be "Are Too Young"

There is nothing grammatically wrong with "his too-young girlfriends". The only thing I would note is that, if this were read out loud, it would almost certainly be heard as "Two young girlfriends". Therefore it is suitable for a written caption but not one that is to be spoken.

Headlines and titles frequently use the shortest version that makes sense. The longer a title, the less it is likely to catch the eye.

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  • Thanks. I accidentally put the hyphen there in "Megan Fox Burns Will Arnett On His Girlfriends That Are Too-Young.". Sorry.. Mar 10, 2021 at 11:01
  • Are those three sentences I gave also correct to you? Mar 10, 2021 at 11:03
  • Regardless of possible hyphenation, I see no support in this discussion for constructions like He wears too big trousers. So far as I'm concerned, his too-young girlfriends is idiomatically unacceptable outside of very casual contexts, whatever the formal rules of "approved syntax" might have to say on the matter. Mar 10, 2021 at 12:47
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As a British native, I find all these sentences incorrect. Too-anything with a hyphen, though understandable, is not correct English. Your explanations in brackets are all correct.

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  • Thanks. Do you think the title of the video is incorrect too? Mar 10, 2021 at 12:12
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I do not believe your sentences are correct. The problem is that, if you use “too” to describe a noun, it has to be relative to some standard.

If you said, “This man is too young,” my automatic response would be “For what?” If you just want to say the man is young, you would say, “The man is young” without “too.” To use “too,” it has to be relative to some standard - for example,

“This man is too young to run for president.” (Legal requirement is 35) “This man is too old to do manual labor” (Opinion statement but still a specific standard)

The man can be “young,” or the man can be “too young for (something),” but the man can’t just be “too young.” The word “too” means you exceeded some limit, and the limit (whether factual or opinion) has to be specified or at least implied through context.

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Each of these sentences is technically correct:

In the sentence "He's had girlfriends that are too young", "young" is an adjective that modifies "girlfriends", and "too" is an adverb that modifies "young".

However, with the way that those sentences are constructed, "too" and "young", in this case, need to be taken together to function properly because they've become an adjective phrase, and the general rule for adjective phrases is that if they precede the noun they're modifying, they're hyphenated, and if they come after the noun they're modifying, they're not hyphenated. Otherwise, you have girlfriends. What kind? Young. What kind of young girlfriends? Too. And that's nonsensical.

That being said, they're not correct in the sense that, for saying that someone it "too ", you would never, ever say it this way.

As for when to hyphenate this type of phrase, and I apologize for the coarseness, but you could use the "blank-ass blank" test, which operates as such:

If someone were to come up to you and say the words:

I just bought a big ass car

lack of punctuation is intentional

... it would certainly not be correct to infer that they had purchased an "ass car" that is large, because, again, that's nonsensical. Instead, you would infer that they had purchased a large car, so the correct way to write this (admittedly colloquial) sentence is:

I just bought a big-ass car.

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Reluctantly, I am going to answer even though there are several decent answers already.

First, the more typical construction with “too” modifying an adjective does not immediately precede the noun being modified.

He is too good a person to be treated that way

is idiomatic.

He is a too good person to be treated that way

sounds unnatural though it may possibly be grammatical.

He is too good person to be treated that way

passes from being not idiomatic to being ungrammatical.

I am guessing that a possible reason for this is that in speech

He is a too good person

must be parsed to avoid being interpreted as the nonsensical

He is a two good person.

A language is spoken more than it is written, and grammar is rooted in speech.

This issue, as pointed out in chasly’s answer, is acute with respect to plural nouns.

He has too friendly dogs

meaning

He has dogs that are too friendly

will likely be heard as

He has two friendly dogs

with an entirely different meaning.

Second, as pointed out in Segnerd’s answer, constructions with “too” involve a comparison. Absent information, which may come from context, on the standard of comparison, a phrase like “too young” must be fit into a syntax that makes explicit what the standard is.

He has dogs that are too friendly to warn of burglars

is good English with a modifying clause following the noun modified.

He has too friendly to warn of burglars dogs

is not good English. We are not really worried about dogs that are burglars or dogs that belong to burglars.

The only reason that I did not upvote segnerd’s answer is that in the specific quote being discussed the standard is clear: there are social and even legal standards about appropriate age differences in sexual relationships. If a man my age were to have a romantic entanglement with a woman aged 25, it would be considered unseemly at best (though my wife would use harsher words). If I were to have a sexual relationship with a girl fifteen, I’d be looking at a jail sentence.

Third, headlines and titles have space constraints and are terrible guides to good English. In the specific example quoted, the construction may pass muster grammatically, but if you want people to think you speak good English, do not use it yourself.

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