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Greek to Me

Ahhh, the comma—that most useful of punctuation marks, the innocuous little curled figures that can make the difference between comprehensibility and garbled incomprehensibility in the written sentence. Imagine a world without it.

Mary Norris, the self-defined “Comma Queen,” could never imagine such an alien domain. Norris, who began working at The New Yorker in 1978, first regaled readers with irreverent tales of pencils and punctuation in her New York Times bestseller Between You & Me.

Now she delivers a funny paean to the art of self-expression in her latest book, Greek to Me. The author will appear as part of the free White Hart Speaker Series April 17 at 6PM. The inn is located at 15 Under Mountain Road Salisbury. Reservations are required by clicking on the link below.

In Greek to Me Norris explains how the alphabet originated in Greece, makes the case for Athena as a feminist icon and goes searching for the fabled Baths of Aphrodite.

Employing her trademark wit, Norris explores the influence of ancient Greek on modern English; she credits the Greeks with the first tentative foray into punctuation. She explains that the Greeks’ first writings were all executed in capital letters with no spaces between words and no marks to help the reader understand the writer’s intent. Later, dots were placed in the middle of the line for a short pause (a comma), at the bottom of the line for a longer pause (a colon), and at the top for a full stop (the period).

The mundane little comma comes from the Greek word komma, meaning something cut off, a segment, and we can thank that long-ago culture for everything up to, and probably including, preventing wars by making our written communications clearer.

Still, Norris readily admits to the obscurity of rules governing English punctuation. “If commas are open to interpretation, hyphens are downright Delphic,” she writes.