Monday, October 29, 2012

Microsoft founder repurposes the semicolon

I was leafing through the November issue of WSJ. Magazine, wondering at the whimsies of the 1 percent, when I came upon some of the oddest semicolon usage I’ve ever seen. In a one-page feature called Still Life,* a photo of several possessions (detail below) is annotated by the objects’ proud owner -- in this case, Paul G. Allen, cofounder of Microsoft. A chunk of the text:
In 1999, I acquired Les Poseuses by Georges Seurat. I feel lucky to own a museum-quality masterpiece; I discovered Tomorrow, the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein in the basement as a boy -- it used to belong to my father. It's one of the many books that fueled my curiosity about the future of technology; a DEC tape containing the program files created by me and Bill Gates in Boston in 1975 while writing the BASIC code for the MITS Altair 8800. It was sent to Albuquerque, where we founded Microsoft; this Etruscan head was the first antiquity I've ever bought. People often don't realize that many early sculptures, like this one, were painted. The 2,500-year-old piece depicts a man with red hair; my biggest musical inspiration, Jimi Hendrix, used this Fender Stratocaster to play his iconic rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. ...
Yes, the clauses on the same topic are separated with periods, while the unrelated clauses are connected by semicolons -- the opposite of the usual practice. Maybe you don't find this disconcerting, but as one brought up on the standard semicolon -- the one that joins related clauses -- I was reeling. Once I caught on, I could see the potential: There's a certain weird poetry to "The 2,500-year-old piece depicts a man with red hair; my biggest musical inspiration, Jimi Hendrix, used this Fender Stratocaster." But is weird poetry what you use semicolons for?

Since the WSJ is generally a well-edited paper, I’m guessing this is Paul Allen’s own tic. And I can see his editor thinking, what the hell, it’s only 200 words, why annoy him? (I sometimes wish I’d said that to myself, as an editor, more often.) But those semicolons make it 200 words of extremely odd prose.

*It's STILL LIFE on the web version, but in print it's STILL/LIFE; I don't know how you'd parse that, but I'm sure someone thought it looked classy. 

14 comments:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Wow. That is strange. I can almost hear him saying it, a longer pause between the clauses about each piece, and a quick move to the next one as he shows off the collection. But I certainly wouldn't have punctuated it that way.

John Cowan said...

What I think is happening is that the full stops were originally commas, thus:

"In 1999, I acquired Les Poseuses by Georges Seurat, I feel lucky to own a museum-quality masterpiece; I discovered Tomorrow, the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein in the basement as a boy -- it used to belong to my father, it's one of the many books that fueled my curiosity about the future of technology; a DEC tape containing the program files created by me and Bill Gates in Boston in 1975 while writing the BASIC code for the MITS Altair 8800, it was sent to Albuquerque, where we founded Microsoft; this Etruscan head was the first antiquity I've ever bought, people often don't realize that many early sculptures, like this one, were painted, the 2,500-year-old piece depicts a man with red hair; my biggest musical inspiration, Jimi Hendrix, used this Fender Stratocaster to play his iconic rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock."

So the principle is that commas separate descriptive clauses, whether they are sentences or not; semicolons separate different descriptions. Then some idiot copy editor changed the commas to periods and failed to do anything about the semicolons (like changing them to list bullets).

Kay L. Davies said...

Once I figured out what John Cowan was saying (above) I realized he might, perhaps. be right. It took me a minute to process "full stop" because I seldom think about British English any more. Tsk.
Still, it is an idiopathic use of semi colons.
Using bullets, as JC suggests, would have meant changing the whole thing into a list. I've never seen bullets used mid-sentence.
K

Bryan M. White said...

It's like some kind of crazy semicolon Tourette's.

I like the semicolon as much as the next person, and I get as secretly excited about an opportunity to use one as any lover of the written word. But the semicolon must be used sparingly, appropriately. You do not go looking for the semicolon; the semicolon comes looking for you.

Jan said...

In the print version, matters are even worse, because the type is a smallish sans-serif in which the semicolons look (to these aging eyes, at least) like colons. So at first I saw "I feel lucky to own a museum-quality masterpiece: I discovered Tomorrow, the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein in the basement ..."
For a moment there, I was contemplating the notion of a museum-quality Heinlein edition. Not unthinkable, I suppose, depending on the museum, but unlikely.

Gregory Lee said...

Allen is using semicolons to separate the items of his list, as one would use commas. However, he can't use commas here, because the items of the list contain higher level punctuation. Probably, the semicolons are intended to indicate Allen's intonation, as The Ridger writes. As I say it over, though, I admit that I can't quite catch the cadence of Allen's speech.

In general, I also use punctuation primarily to indicate intonation.

Marc Leavitt said...

I think the answer here is simple. The punctuation is incorrect.

Bryan M. White said...

Marc might be on to something there ;D <---(an indication of my intonation)

I would be more inclined to buy the idea that the semicolons were acting as "super commas" -- separating listed items which themselves contained internal commas -- IF it were simply a series a semicolons. It's the fact that it goes semicolon, period, semicolon, period that makes it so insidiously baffling (Am I getting a tad melodramatic about this? ;D <---(yup))

Bryan M. White said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan M. White said...

Actually, I like John Cowan's solution of switching the periods out for commas. The result is remarkably lucid. Let's go with that.

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Vincent said...

An item in a list might have several sentences, each ending with a full stop. Except the last, which would end in a semi-colon, or (my preference) no punctuation, like this

So a secretary may have removed the signs of its being a list, whether bullet, numbers or just newlines.

John Cowan said...

I know not what anfractuosity of my mind led me to write full stop for period there: I am a Yank of the Yanks.

Otherwise, I think we all are in violent agreement.

Steve Shepard said...

Paul Allen may have recently read Jose Saramago before writing his piece; In Saramago's novels he uses semicolons in place of periods; consistently; throughout the entire book; reading Saramago left me in a daze wondering about the semicolon.