In literature, apostrophe is known to be a figure of simple speech. A writer or the literary speaker who uses apostrophe is directly speaking to someone who is either not physically present, to someone who is dead, or to an inanimate object. So the next time you talk to your phone like it’s your most treasured possession, guess what, you’re using a figure of speech.
Apostrophe, and figures of speech in general, are what we call literary devices, which means that it is a technique that a writer uses to produce a special effect in their general writing. When you read a novel or a poem and the speaker starts directly talking to abstract concepts like love, death, or hope as if they are standing right in front of them, brace yourself because you are in for a lot of drama. We’ll get more of that later.
The word comes from the Greek translation for “turning back.” It is a common term in Greek literary drama and works such as in Homer’s Odyssey. However, in that novel’s case, apostrophe was used to refer to times when a rather impersonal narrator intrudes in the storyline to provide additional information or some sort of commentary. You may also see alliteration examples in literature.
This simple writing technique is ubiquitous in old pieces of literature, and even in literature of the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Apostrophe is used back then in cases where the writer uses an omniscient third-person point of view in his writing. The technique can be seen in most plays, but it can also be observed in a few poetry and prose pieces.
Although they hold the same name, they play very different roles. Apostrophe as a punctuation mark refers to the process of omitting letters and sounds in a word. It can also be seen in contracted terms such as “I am” to “I’m,” “we have” to “we’ve,” or “do not” to “don’t.” You may also like satire examples in literature.
Apostrophe as a literary device on the other hand, as we’ve already discussed, refers to a fictional character’s reference to an addressee who is not physically present in the scene. Even without serious analyzing, it’s evident that, although both terms hold the exact same spelling and pronunciation, they are very different in meaning and in nature, and must not be confused with the other. You may also check out meiosis examples.
You might be thinking that apostrophes and figures of speech in general are too fancy for the common man to use for his day-to-day interaction with his fellow human beings, but it’s actually more common that you may have originally thought. You may not have realized it before today, but you have actually used apostrophe many times. You might be interested in onomatopoeia examples in literature.
Have you ever tried addressing your car every time it refuses to start? How many times have you begged it to work long enough to take you to your office? Or have you ever yelled at the sun for being too hot for a nice walk in the park? Or what about those times you’ve responded to a formal email or to a text out loud, even while being aware that the person cannot hear you?
Apostrophes can seem unnatural if you study its presence in the theater where it plays the role of an omniscient narrator addressing the audience. But if we look at our daily lives and the absurd number of times we need to vent about someone, or to someone, even if, technically, nobody is there, we’d see just how perfectly normal apostrophes are. You may also like periodic sentence examples.
Here are some of the most common apostrophes we utter without even realizing just how poetic we are being:
Take another look at these examples. They seem normal to us, right? Of course, we’d talk to our coffee. It’s every morning’s lifesaver. Of course, we’d beg the clouds to not rain. Who else are we going to talk to about it? And what’s wrong with asking math why it’s being so difficult, right? You may also check out irony examples for kids.
But if you really think about it, all of the subjects of these so-called normal statements are all inanimate. (Well, Hades is technically alive, but he is also, technically, not real, so he doesn’t count.) How normal is it to talk to things that don’t even have life, much less a mouth, to hear us, comprehend us, and respond to us? Apparently, very much so. You might be interested in balanced sentences usage and examples.
The Greeks who basically invented everything we now appreciate in this world (literature, art, and architecture, to name a few), used apostrophe as a part of the storytelling technique they used for their drama. And if the real founding fathers thought it necessary to incorporate apostrophe into their local theaters, then it must be a necessary element. You may also see antiphrasis examples.
Apostrophe gives the storyteller the chance to switch gears, to add his own commentary, and to simply state his feelings that have been awakened by inanimate or abstract concepts. Often, general statements and lines with apostrophes begin with the exclamatory sound “O,” which is used to signify a change in the addressee.
If 2 seconds ago, you were addressing Romeo, you can easily begin your next statement with “O” to tell your audience that you are no longer talking to Romeo but to somebody else nobody can see. Death, for example. Such as in this famous scene in the classic play Romeo and Juliet by the literary master William Shakespeare. You may also like examples of assonance.
JULIET: Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.
These were the words that Juliet uttered when she awoke to Romeo’s dead body lying beside her. In this great example of the use of apostrophe, we can see how Juliet talks to the dagger before she uses it to kill herself.
This dramatic scene is a symbol of Juliet’s incapability to talk to her lover who has just passed. So, to mark her final moment, she chooses to talk to an inanimate object because saying her goodbyes to Romeo is no longer possible. You may also check out examples of oxymoron in sentences.
By addressing a person who is not present or an inanimate object who cannot feel or express emotions, a character can show his present state instead. We knew Juliet was suffering because of Romeo’s death. But we felt it more vividly when she started expressing her grief by talking to the dagger she would later use to take her own life. You might be interested in examples of sarcasm.
Classic writers, or those whose works we still read, study, and love until now (like Shakespeare for example!) loved using apostrophe as a figure of formal speech, since it effortlessly gives an additional drama to the already climactic scene. Which means that the technique is ubiquitous in many of the famous literary works we know. Below are a few examples of the use of apostrophes in literature.
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.
It doesn’t come as much of a shock that dear old Shakespeare is on the list. If you’re looking for drama, this is your guy. First, he made Juliet talk to a dagger before committing suicide. (Seriously, this guy has issues.)
Now, in another time-honored piece, Hamlet is found strolling through a graveyard with his friend Horatio (which, apparently, is how friends hang out back then) when two gravediggers dug up the skull of Hamlet’s former acquaintance Yorick who was a court jester when he was still alive. You may also see simple allegory examples.
Hamlet then picks up Yorick’s skull and addresses it by saying “Alas, poor Yorick!” After his short hello to his old friend, he then turns back to addressing his friend Horatio. But talking to Yorick’s skull made Hamlet contemplative of the concept of death and decay, two things he just held in his hands. You may also like paradox definition and examples.
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 lived in the tide of times.
Aside from being the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare is officially known as the Master of Apostrophes. Julius Caesar is just another classic piece that is littered with apostrophes.
In this one, Antony addresses the bloody corpse of Julius Caesar and apologizes to it. If you have observed, Antony calls Caesar a “bleeding piece of earth.” With this statement, he acknowledges the fact that Caesar can no longer hear or respond to him. You may also check out cumulative sentence examples.
Although Caesar’s dead body is not as decayed as Yorick’s skull in Hamlet, both men display the same characteristic: lifelessness. And, as we’ve already discussed, talking to anything or anyone that cannot respond to you is, in literature, known as the use of apostrophe. You might be interested in anaphora examples definition and usage.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so; / For those whom thou thinks’t thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
In this poem, Donne is directly addressing Death as if it is a person any of us can see. (Apostrophe alert.) He expresses in the sonnet his personal opinions regarding the concept of Death.
He tells it that although some people are scared of it, it has nothing to be proud of because inspiring awe and fear in other people is not something that anyone should aim for. He’s basically telling Death about the stupidity of the whole reason behind his existence. You may also see dramatic irony definition and examples.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, / How I wonder what you are. / Up above the world so high, / Like a diamond in the sky.”
This poem has become one of the most popular nursery rhymes told to children. A tune to accompany it has even been invented. In this poem / nursery rhyme, a child is the persona of the poem. He can be found speaking to a star which is an inanimate object. Aside from being a classic poem / nursery rhyme, it is also a classic example of the use of apostrophe. You may also like onomatopoeia definition and examples.
Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Another popular literary work that makes use of apostrophe. In this excerpt from the novel by Joyce, we can see the character talking to life as if it is a person, and not the actuality that he is living. His basic statement seems to communicate to us that, aside from directly addressing life, he is also confiding in it.
O stranger of the future! / O inconceivable being! / Whatever the shape of your house, / However you scoot from place to place / No matter how strange and colorless the clothes you may wear / I bet nobody likes a wet dog either. / I bet everyone in your pub, / even the children, pushes her away.
This example is a little different than the ones we’ve had because the persona in the excerpt doesn’t talk to either a dead person or to an inanimate object.
In this one, the persona talks to a stranger who isn’t even born yet. Not only do they not know each other, the poem’s subject doesn’t even exist. But we can see how he talks to him, and his apparent effort to build some sort of connection between them by spurting assumptions about the stranger’s nonexistent life. You may also check out examples of alliteration in poetry.
By using apostrophe in literary works, writers can effectively bring abstract ideas and even nonexistent persons to life, so that the emotions they want to communicate can have a medium which can help make the reader more empathetic toward the sentiments since it is being felt and expressed by a character. You might be interested in simile examples for kids.