The Other Kind of Apostrophe

When you hear apostrophe, you probably think of this , right? Today, we’re talking about the literary device, which is completely different. A literary apostrophe is when a speaker addresses an absent party as if they were present.

Literary apostrophes are great for conveying emotion. They allow the speaker more expression and offer a better view of the their inner thoughts and feelings. In Greek, apostrophe means turning away.

Apostrophes were used a lot in the early 1900s and before, but today they’re much less common. Sometimes you’ll still see them in poems, plays, and songs. You’ve definitely heard them in everyday speech.

Format of an Apostrophe

The purpose of an apostrophe is to direct the reader’s attention to something other than the person who’s speaking. Apostrophes frequently target an absent person or a third party. Other times, they focus on an inanimate object, a place, or even an abstract idea.

They’ll often begin with an exclamation. This may be a sound, like O! It could also be the name of the thing the speaker’s addressing. Take this example from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

GOOD night! which put the candle out?

A jealous zephyr, not a doubt.

Ah! friend, you little knew

How long at that celestial wick

The angels labored diligent;

Extinguished, now, for you!

At the start of this stanza, Dickinson addresses the night by exclaiming its name. She asks what blew out the candle, and then decides it was a zephyr (or a small breeze). The next line starts a new apostrophe with Ah! This one is addressed to friend, which refers to the zephyr. Dickinson then ends the poem by talking to the breeze about the extinguished candle.

Apostrophe to an Absent Person

Sometimes apostrophes address an absent person or people. One example is the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from the musical Les Misérables. Marius sits alone in a café, remembering his friends, who died in battle earlier in the musical. He sings “Oh, my friends, my friends, forgive me / That I live and you are gone.” By addressing characters who aren’t there, he’s able to show his true feelings without reservation.

Apostrophe to a Thing

Apostrophes to inanimate objects can create strong imagery. Songwriters tend to do this a lot. The song “Blue Moon,” written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, starts with an apostrophe to the moon: “Blue moon / You saw me standing alone / Without a dream in my heart.” By speaking to the moon, the singer paints a vivid picture for listeners.

Apostrophe to an Idea

Apostrophes can also address an abstract idea, like love. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, there’s one addressed to the concept of ingratitude: “Ingratitude! thou marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster.”

Apostrophes in Everyday Speech

Apostrophes show up in everyday speech all the time. People use them to address objects or missing people. For example, someone waiting at a red light might say, “Come on, light, turn green!”

The Punctuation Mark

As a punctuation mark, apostrophes usually show possession or missing letters (e.g. “Deans car wont start.”). Even though the punctuation mark and the literary device share a name, they’re totally different. The punctuation mark looks like a small comma placed between and slightly above two letters. The literary device can be a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire poem.

Apostrophe tends to be associated with heavy emotion. It’s useful for expressing deep sorrow, rage, love, and sometimes humor. Because of this, apostrophes work best in plays, poems, and other types of informal writing.

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