Definition of Apostrophe
More commonly known as a punctuation mark, apostrophe can also refer to an exclamatory figure of speech. The definition of apostrophe as a literary device is when a speaker breaks off from addressing one party and instead addresses a third party. This third party may be an individual, either present or absent in the scene. It can also be an inanimate object, like a dagger, or an abstract concept, such as death or the sun. Because there is a clear speaker and change of addressee, apostrophe is most commonly found in plays. It does, however, sometimes occur in poetry and prose.
The word apostrophe comes from the Greek for “turning back.” It was common in Greek drama and works like Homer’s Odyssey. In cases such as Homer’s Odyssey, apostrophe usually occurs when the otherwise impersonal narrator intrudes in the storyline to provide information or commentary. This use of apostrophe—where a narrator interrupts the action to provide commentary—was also popular in works of literature in the nineteenth- to mid-twentieth centuries. Examples of apostrophe in these cases occur in works with an omniscient third-person point of view.
Difference Between Apostrophe as a Literary Device and Apostrophe as a Punctuation Mark
Both senses of the word “apostrophe” come from the original Greek meaning “turning back” or “turning away.” Apostrophe as a punctuation mark took on the meaning of “elision” and therefore is used when letters are omitted and sounds are elided. In English, for example, we use apostrophes when contracted “I am” to “I’m,” “we have” to “we’ve,” “do not” to “don’t,” and so on.
The apostrophe definition as a literary device, on the other hand, evolved to the turning from one addressee to another. Therefore, though the terms have similar origins, their meanings are very different.
Common Examples of Apostrophe
Many of us are familiar with using apostrophe without realizing it. Apostrophe occurs we address our car on a cold day, either pleading with it to start or yelling at it when it doesn’t. Or perhaps we get an email from someone and start responding out loud, knowing that the person won’t hear the message. In this way, though apostrophe may seem unnatural in the context of plays and omniscient narrators addressing the audience, it is, in fact, perfectly natural in our daily lives. Apostrophe is also found in popular songs and other media. For example:
- “Ugh, cell phone, why won’t you load my messages?”
- (While speaking on the phone with someone) “Hold, on, my kid’s going crazy—Jim, come back here, stop running with scissors.”
- “Oh, Starbucks, how I love you! Your medium dark roast allowed me to survive that meeting!”
- “Oh what a world it seems we live in.” –Rufus Wainwright (song)
- “O holy night! The stars are brightly shining!” (Christmas carol)
Significance of Apostrophe in Literature
Apostrophe has been a part of storytelling since Greek drama, and perhaps before. It provides a way for the storyteller to switch gears, add his or her own commentary, or state feelings inspired by abstract concepts. Many examples of apostrophe in English begin with the exclamatory sound “O,” to signify a change in the addressee. By addressing a person who is not present or an inanimate object that cannot feel or express emotions, a character is instead showing their own inner state.
Examples of Apostrophe in Literature
JULIET: Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.
(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
Near the very end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the tragic heroine Juliet awakes from her sleeping draught to find Romeo dead. In this apostrophe example, Juliet takes Romeo’s dagger and addresses it. It is ironically “happy”—it will take her to her death to be joined once again with Romeo. The drama of this scene is that Juliet can no longer address her love, who is dead, and must instead consult an inanimate object in her final moment.
HAMLET: Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite
jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a
thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is!
My gorge rises at it.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
In this famous line from Hamlet by Shakespeare, the main character Hamlet happens to be strolling through a graveyard with his friend Horatio when two clowns dig up the skull of Hamlet’s former acquaintance Yorick, a court jester. Hamlet picks up the skull and addresses it—“Alas, poor Yorick!”—then turns back to address his friend Horatio. Addressing the skull makes Hamlet contemplate, once again, the concept of death and decay.
ANTONY: O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever livèd in the tide of times.
(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)
Antony is addressing the bloody corpse of Julius Caesar and apologizing to it than he is not being more forceful with the men (“these butchers” who led to Caesar’s murder. Antony calls Caesar “thou bleeding piece of earth,” acknowledging that Caesar no longer has any power to respond. Yet Antony, overcome with remorse and grief, feels the need to both apologize to Caesar and praise Caesar’s virtues even after death.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
(“Holy Sonnet 10” by John Dunne)
John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10” addresses Death as a concept and inspired a famous novel of the same name by John Gunther. Donne’s point is that, while some are awed and in fear of death, the personified Death has nothing to be proud of. Inspiring awe and fear in others is not something that anyone should strive for, in Donne’s opinion.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown…
(“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats)
The ode form of poetry was a favorite of John Keats, who wrote six major odes in the year 1819. Odes are usually directed to an inanimate object or person who is not present, reciting their positive characteristics. Thus, odes usually have some form of apostrophe. In this case, Keats declares to the nightingale, “Thou wast not born for death.” He notes that the song of the nightingale has been heard for generations and should never cease.
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.
(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)
The narrator in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden often turns away from the action and addresses the audience directly with his own opinions of the action. The narrator also often makes sweeping statements about the truth of human nature, which often occur at the beginning of chapters to introduce them thematically. In this example of apostrophe, the narrator discusses his beliefs about freedom or the mind and free will.
Test Your Knowledge of Apostrophe
1. Choose the correct definition of apostrophe as a literary device:
A. A punctuation mark that stands in place of omitted letters.
B. An exclamatory figure of speech when a character turns from addressing one party to another party or inanimate object.
C. The act of omitting information necessary to the plot to keep readers guessing.
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2. Why is the following excerpt from Shakespeare’s Macbeth an example of apostrophe as a literary device?
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.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?
A. Macbeth is talking to a friend named Dagger.
B. Macbeth is gripping a real dagger and telling a friend about its qualities.
C. Macbeth is addressing an imaginary dagger and assigning it qualities.
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3. Which of the following quotes from Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is an example of apostrophe?
A. Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!
B. I would prefer not to.
C. Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.
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