How would I punctuate the phrase "making that which needs to be better better"?

I'm guessing that the phrase is grammatically correct, and that the punctuation is as follows, along with an example sentence this phrase might be a part of:

I have spent my entire life making that which needs to be better, better.

Is this correct?

  • 2
    The comma between the better's is a visual aid to help clarify an unusual and incongruous-looking juxtaposition. It's not really necessary, as there is no alternative reading; '... it is about making that which is good better' appears commaless on the internet, for instance. On the other hand, the BBC iPlayer slogan 'making the unmissable, unmissable' included a comma. Admittedly, here, the commaless version might make a reader hesitate for a second or two. '... making better that which needs to be better' (with the 'be' emphasised) is grammatical and clearer. Though arguably less punchy. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 10 '15 at 10:29
  • Is it grammatically correct, however? I fully agree, however, that 'making better that which needs to be better' is a very nice of putting it without losing too much of its 'punchy-ness', and is certainly not going make a reader check twice (or four times, and then end up making him/her ask a question on elu) about its grammatical correctness. – aspiring_sarge Jan 10 '15 at 10:38
  • 5
    It’s perfectly grammatical. Personally, I’ve always abhorred that comma there: I can see no reason whatsoever for it to be there, I find it distracts and confuses far more than it helps … but alas, I am not yet supreme timelord ruler of the known and unknown universes, so I can’t really dictate how other people feel about it. Yet. But if you wish to be on my good side once I do become supreme timelord ruler, etc., then leave out the comma and just write, “Making that which needs to be better”. (Or, alternatively, “Improving what needs improving”, for that matter.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 10 '15 at 10:59
  • Yes, the original is correct, with comma or without. Edwin Ashworth, I'm quite sure, wanted to say that they are not wrong. When he wrote that an alternative is grammatical, he did not want to say that the original was not grammatical. – Jim Reynolds Jan 10 '15 at 11:05
  • I didn't want to start the usual debate about whether 'grammar and punctuation are separate, and mispunctuation is not a subset of ungrammaticality'. So 'Making the unmissable,,;, unmissable' would not be counted as 'ungrammatical' by most people. // But both with and without comma in OP's sentence are acceptable; as Jim says. Like Janus, I'd leave it out in this case (style trumping minor potential for momentary confusion), but would use a comma where avoiding major confusion (especially ambiguity) was more important than nice style. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 10 '15 at 11:26

Given the choice between ending the original sentence with "better better" or "better, better," I would probably go with the commaless form:

I have spent my entire life making that which needs to be better better.

At the same time, there is nothing incorrect (in my opinion) with marking an intended slightly-longer-than-usual pause between the two occurrences of better with a comma.

Having said that, I must commend the comments of Edwin Ashworth and Janus Bahs Jacquet (above) that you could easily avoid the whole question by rewording your sentence as (per Edwin)

I have spent my entire life making better that which needs to be better.

or (per Janus)

I have spent my entire life improving that which needs to be better.

To the extent that your decision to present the reader with a double helping of better reflects a desire to call attention to their juxtaposition—as opposed to, say, a failure to notice that less flashy or distracting alternatives are readily available—I imagine that you don't mind causing the reader to stop momentarily to take in the duplication. And since this entails forcing a pause in the reader's progress at "better better" regardless of how you punctuate it, I don't think the comma serves much practical purpose here.


I don't think this is especially grammatical. To me, grammar exists to provide clarity, not act as some kind of pro forma rubber stamp cargo cult no-problems-detected tea ceremony.

Why do I say this? Because this could just as accurately be stated by someone who's spent their entire life creating defective items which need to be better than better, better then better, etc.

There are multiple ways to clarify this sentence. Doubling an adjective without nouns is a great way to wind up with sentences which need punctuational bowling bumpers to keep the reader on the right track. The writer can do better, and should make an attempt.

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