What Is Apostrophe?

(View all literary devices)

Apostrophe comes from the Greek word apostrophos, which means “turning away.” It is a literary device in which the speaker turns, right in the middle of their narrative, to address either a person or an object that is absent. It doesn’t matter whether the person or object is real or a figment of the character’s imagination. Sometimes, in apostrophe, the speaker addresses an abstract quality as if it were a living thing.

Apostrophe is used most often in drama. The famous scene where Hamlet holds the skull of Yorick and addresses the dead man directly is a good example. The device also occurs in poetry and prose, however. Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, frequently uses apostrophe to address the reader about the development of his characters.

How Do You Identify Apostrophe in Writing?

Many writers signal apostrophe by using the word “O” to begin their address. Another way to identify apostrophe is by noting the name of the person or object addresses. In plays, apostrophe often involves a literal turning away; the speaker may face the stage while the rest of the scene goes dark.

It’s also important to realize that apostrophe has two different meanings. In English grammar and mechanics, an apostrophe is a punctuation mark. This apostrophe has nothing to do with the literary device.

Examples of Apostrophe

1. “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” — In Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale, he pauses to address the bird directly.

2. “Death be not proud, thou some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;” — John Donne directly addresses death in his famous sonnet.

3. “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone/Without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own.” — Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

4. O students! — says the teacher at home, while grading — Why have you not completed these assignments as I instructed?

5. O mint chip ice cream, laments a man trying to button his favorite shirt, I am breaking up with you for once and for all!

6. “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” The narrator of Melville’s story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” concludes with two apostrophes that also reveal the theme of the entire story.