I found myself writing

And so, they went on amassing better-than-nothing's.

because I wanted better-than-nothing to be a kind of catchphrase, referred to in this form consistently throughout my writing. I imagined alternatives such as

And so, they went on amassing better-than-nothings.

And so, they went on amassing better-than-nothings.

And so, they went on amassing "better-than-nothings."

And so, they went on amassing "better-than-nothing"s.

I know the last example is clearly wrong, but, is the one that makes the most sense to me: grouping the phrase and pluralizing that group.

Is there a clearly right way to do this?

(I imagine not.) I'm interested in what's most natural to read ("idiomatic," I think is the word), and also interested in knowing what others have seen in similar instances. I'm afraid what's natural to me may not be what's natural to most others.

I'm also curious how one would treat a similar but more awkward phrase, better-than-expected.

The vacation was full of better-than-expected's.

(A bad example, off the top of my head.)


Syntactically, the phrase better-than-nothing is an adjective. As such, it does not take a plural.

But adjectives can be used as nouns (just as nouns can be used as adjectives). Generally the adjective refers to an implied noun made clear by context.

When selecting among the various colors, he chose the blue [one/color].

When used as a noun, an adjective can be pluralized in the same manner as most nouns, by simply adding s.

When selecting among the various colors, he chose the blues.

If the context of your usage for better-than-nothing uses it like a noun, it should be pluralized in the same way.

She wanted something better, but she settled for better-than-nothing.

She sought better things, but often settled for better-than-nothings.

If you are merely reporting on the existence of the term better-than-nothing, then it takes on a noun-like meaning of its own.

He counted the times the term "better-than-nothing" appeared in the text.

There were ten "better-than-nothings" in each chapter.

The correct way to pluralize the term is to simply add an s. The use of an 's suggest either possessive or a contraction.

If you are cataloging the term, rather than using it for its meaning, add quotation marks around the whole term (including the s when it is plural).

Similarly, if you are effectively defining or establishing a catchphrase, you can set it off in quotes (usually only the first time it is used), again with the s inside the quotes if plural.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.