Apostrophe

Definition of Apostrophe

As a literary device, an apostrophe is a poetic phrase or speech made by a character that is addressed to a subject that is not literally present in the literary work. The subject may be dead, absent, an inanimate object, or even an abstract idea. A literary apostrophe is designed to direct a reader or audience member’s attention to the entity being addressed as a means of indicating its importance or significance. In addition, apostrophe is also utilized as a way for a character to express their internal thoughts and feelings to someone or something that is not able to respond.

For example, in John Donne’s poemDeath, be not proud,” the poet addresses Death as if it is a living, present person:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

By using apostrophe, the poet is able to share their thoughts and feelings about death as an abstract idea by “speaking” to Death as if it could hear or understand. In turn, this literary device also allows the poet to share their innermost emotions and ideas about death with the reader to create a greater impact.

Common Examples of Apostrophe in Everyday Speech

When we “speak” to something that is inanimate, abstract, or absent, we are using apostrophe. People may do this internally or by speaking aloud. Here are some common examples of apostrophe in everyday speech:

  • Love, who needs you?
  • Come on phone, give me a ring!
  • Chocolate, why must you be so delicious?
  • Alarm clock, please don’t fail me.
  • Seven, you are my lucky number!
  • Thank you, my guardian angel, for this parking space!
  • Heaven help us.

Examples of Apostrophe in Song Lyrics

Apostrophe is often utilized in song lyrics as a means of addressing something that is inanimate or an abstract idea. This adds to a song’s entertainment value and meaning for the listener. Here are some examples of apostrophe in well-known song lyrics:

  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star / How I wonder what you are
  • O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree / How lovely are thy branches
  • Hey, hey, set me free / Stupid Cupid stop picking on me
  • It’s up to you / New York, New York
  • Little Red Corvette / You need a love that’s gonna last
  • Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again
  • Don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky heart / I just don’t think he’d understand
  • Oh Charles, Prince Charles, can you hear my heart break / Can you hear me telling you, marrying her is a big mistake
  • Well, the big black horse said “Look this way”
    He said, “Hey lady, will you marry me?”
    But I said “No, no, no, no, no, no”
    I said “No, no, you’re not the one for me”
  • Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone / without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own

Examples of Apostrophe in Shakespeare

William Shakespeare utilized apostrophe in many of his plays as a device to allow characters to convey their emotions and/or internal viewpoints. By allowing the speaker to express their thoughts and feelings to an absent or inanimate “third party,” the audience becomes more aware of the character’s motivations and personal truth. Here are some examples of apostrophe in Shakespeare’s literary works:

  • “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (Romeo and Juliet)–Juliet addresses an “absent” Romeo, unaware that he is nearby.
  • “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (Hamlet)–Hamlet addresses the skull of Yorick, former jester to the king, which has been unearthed by gravediggers.
  • “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend, more hideous when thou show’st thee in a child than the sea-monster!” (King Lear)–King Lear addresses the abstract idea of ingratitude as it is displayed, in his mind, by his daughter Goneril.
  • “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.” (Macbeth)–Macbeth addresses a dagger that he envisions is in front of him, but it is not actually there.

Difference Between Apostrophe as Literary Device and Punctuation

Most people have heard of apostrophe in terms of punctuation. As a punctuation mark, an apostrophe indicates possession (the student’s book) or an intentional omission of letters or numbers (they’re studying). Though it may appear that apostrophe as punctuation is entirely different from apostrophe as a literary device, there is a similar foundation to their functions. A literary apostrophe is used by writers to allow a character or speaker to address an absent entity as if it/they were present. Like the punctuation mark, apostrophe in literature is therefore related to an intentional omission. Rather than the omission of letters or numbers, a literary apostrophe refers to an intentional absence of a subject being addressed, thereby calling attention to what is not there.

Examples of Apostrophe in Literature

As a literary device, apostrophe is used in literature to allow a character to speak to an object, abstract idea, absent person, or someone who doesn’t exist as if it is a living, present person. Apostrophe is effective in a literary work for its dramatic effect, to demonstrate the importance of the object, idea, or absent person, and to allow readers to witness a character’s personal and intimate expression. Here are some examples of apostrophe in literature:

Example 1: The Raven (Edgar Allan Poe)

 “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!
In Poe’s well-known poem, the poet “speaks” to a visiting raven. Though the Raven is “present” in the poem and does repeatedly respond with the word “nevermore,” Poe still incorporates apostrophe as a literary device on behalf of the speaker/poet. The Raven in this instance functions more as an abstraction or symbol than a literal bird with powers of awareness and understanding of human speech. Therefore, Poe’s use of apostrophe in his poem is effective in allowing the reader to “hear” the poet’s internal thoughts and feelings as he projects them onto the Raven by “conversing” with it. This serves to emphasize the poet’s feelings of loneliness and isolation, which provides insight and meaning for the reader.

Example 2: The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams)

Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be !
I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to
the nearest stranger -anything that can blow your candles out !
– for nowadays the world is lit by lightning ! Blow out your candles, Laura – and so good-bye.

In Williams’s play, Tom Wingfield suddenly leaves his home behind, along with his mother Amanda and sister Laura, in an attempt to escape their suffocating and dysfunctional family dynamic. Williams utilizes apostrophe at the close of the play to reveal that Laura is still very much a part of Tom’s thoughts and existence. This indicates that, though Tom has physically escaped his mother and sister, he is still tethered to them psychologically and emotionally. Tom speaks directly to Laura, though she is not there. This passage allows the audience to hear and understand what Tom is prevented from saying to Laura “in person” in the play.

Example 3: The Color Purple (Alice Walker)

Dear God,

They put Sofia to work in the prison laundry. All day long from five to eight she washing clothes. Dirty convict uniforms, nasty sheets and blankets piled way over her head. Us see her twice a month for half an hour. Her face yellow and sickly, her fingers look like fatty sausage.

Everything nasty here, she say, even the air. Food bad enough to kill you with it. Roaches here, mice, flies, lice and even a snake or two. If you say anything they strip you, make you sleep on a cement floor without a light.

How you manage? us ast.

Every time they ast me to do something, Miss Celie, I act like I’m you. I jump right up and do just what they say.

Much of the narration of Walker’s novel is done with the use of apostrophe, as Celie addresses her thoughts, feelings, and observations to God. This literary device is very effective in its use because the reader is allowed the most intimate view into Celie’s character as she openly expresses her private self to God in her “letters”–something she is not able to do with any of the characters who are actually present in the literary work. In addition, by writing/speaking to God, the reader is able to implicitly trust Celie’s narration of the events and other characters in the novel. Therefore, Celie’s eyes and ears become those of the reader’s, and the expression of her thoughts and feelings to God allows for the reader to have a similar omniscience in terms of the story.