What is Apostrophe? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Apostrophe Definition


An apostrophe (uh-POSS-truh-fee) is when a writer or speaker addresses someone who isn’t present or isn’t alive, an inanimate object, an abstract idea, or an imaginary figure.

In poetry and theatre, apostrophes may initiate with an exclamation from the speaker, such as “Oh!”, but this tendency isn’t as frequently used today. However, apostrophes are still present in literature, theatre, music, film, television, and everyday life.

The term apostrophe comes from the Greek apostrophos, meaning “turning away” or “turning back.” This refers to the writer or speaker turning away from the present audience to begin this address.


Examples of Apostrophe


In daily life, an apostrophe may appear as follows:

  • “Ugh, laptop, why won’t you turn on?”
  • “Grandma, if you were still here today, I wonder what it would’ve been like to know you.”
  • “Mom, thank God you’re out of town—otherwise, I’d have to explain how I managed to flood the house.”

In each instance, the speaker is addressing someone or something that can’t respond.


Why Writers Use Apostrophes


Writers tend to use apostrophe to express emotions, providing the audience with insight to a character’s mind or emotional state. With the addressee unable to hear what the character is saying, the latter can speak freely. Consequently, apostrophes allow the audience to relate to or connect with the character more strongly.


Apostrophe vs. Personification


Apostrophe and personification can seem rather similar because both literary devices handle inanimate objects. In apostrophe, speakers can address inanimate objects. However, personification goes further, attributing lifelike characteristics to these objects.

For example, “The old car’s engine wheezed and shuddered as I turned the key in the ignition” would be an example of personification because it attributes lifelike abilities like wheezing and shuddering to the car engine. On the other hand, someone saying “Ugh, car, why won’t you start?” is an example of apostrophe—the inanimate object is addressed as if it can understand, but it isn’t explicitly given lifelike abilities.


Apostrophes in Other Forms


Apostrophes in Poetry

Poetry, especially poetry dating prior to the mid-20th century, makes generous use of apostrophes, primarily for the same effect as in prose: conveying emotion more freely. Some poetic forms use apostrophes so commonly that the device has become an expected inclusion. These forms include elegies and odes and can include ballades and sestinas if they have a dedication to a particular person, abstraction, deity, or inanimate object.

Apostrophes Outside of Literature

Theatre, television, and film often use apostrophes to give the audience a sense of the character’s thoughts, such as when Romeo and Juliet’s Juliet says “O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die,” expressing her plan to join Romeo in death by stabbing herself.

However, apostrophe makes an appearance in another medium: music. One notable example is in Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” which opens with the apostrophe “Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.” This sets the tone for the song, providing the listener with an insight into the speaker’s emotional state.


Examples of Apostrophe in Literature


1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

This excerpt from Shelley’s classic novel depicts Victor Frankenstein’s emotional state after agreeing to make a companion for the Creature:

Night was far advanced when I came to the halfway resting-place and seated myself beside the fountain. The stars shone at intervals as the clouds passed from over them; the dark pines rose before me, and every here and there a broken tree lay on the ground; it was a scene of wonderful solemnity and stirred strange thoughts within me. I wept bitterly, and clasping my hands in agony, I exclaimed, “Oh! Stars and clouds and winds, ye are all about to mock me; if ye really pity me, crush sensation and memory; let me become as nought; but if not, depart, depart, and leave me in darkness.” [bold for emphasis]

Faced with the fact that he would need to create a female companion for the Creature, who would follow him until he completes this task, Victor breaks down in anguish.

2. William Shakespeare, Hamlet

In this iconic scene, the titular character addresses a skull:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that. [bold for emphasis]

By having Hamlet address Yorick’s skull, Shakespeare demonstrates two of the play’s central elements: mortality and Hamlet’s potential madness.

3. Emily Dickinson, Good Night! Which put the Candle out?

Dickinson’s apostrophe sets the scene for the poem:

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!

In the excerpt, the speaker addresses the night when asking how the candle blew out. The speaker then goes on to address the “zephyr,” or breeze that extinguished the light.


Further Resources on Apostrophe


KidsKonnect has activities and worksheets available for this literary device.


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