Figures of Speech: The Apostrophe as a Literary Device

blue moon
The song "Blue Moon" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart opens with an apostrophe: "Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone / Without a dream in my heart / Without a love of my own.". (Tim Graham/Getty Images)

An apostrophe is a figure of speech in which some absent or nonexistent person or thing is addressed as if present and capable of understanding. Also known as a turne tale, aversio, and aversion, apostrophes are exclamatory passages most often found in poetry than in prose.

An apostrophe is a form of personification that essayist ​Brendan McGuigan describes in "Rhetorical Devices" as "a forceful, emotional device" most ideally used in "creative writing and persuasive essays that lean heavily on emotional strength." However, McGuigan goes on to say that "​in formal persuasive and informative essays, using apostrophe might seem a bit melodramatic and distracting."

To provide a bit of context, look no further than the famous poem by Jane Taylor turned modern-day nursery rhyme "The Star," written in 1806, which calls out to the celestial body of a star saying "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, / How I wonder what you are." In this case, the apostrophe speaks directly to an inanimate star "up above the world so high," personifying it and pondering how it's doing.

Importance of Apostrophes in Poetry and Prose

As a form of direct address to an inanimate object, apostrophes serve to further poetic imagery and often emphasizes the emotional weight of objects in our everyday world. Not to be confused with the punctuation mark known as an apostrophe, the figure of speech serves a vital function in everyone from Mary Shelley's works to Simon & Garfunkel's hit smash "The Sound of Silence."

Categorically, apostrophes fit into the English vernacular as part of the irony family alongside aporia — a figure of speech in which the speaker expresses real or simulated doubt on a topic — wherein the speaker of an apostrophe obviously understands that the subject cannot truly understand the words but instead used the speech to emphasize his or her description of that object.

Although most commonly used in spoken rhetoric, apostrophes can also come into play in written forms, such is the case in a famous example of a cigarette advertisement firm addressing young audiences in its ad — who couldn't buy the product — to appeal to older audiences who long to re-experience the proverbial "youth" the cigarette marketer was trying to sell.

More Examples in Pop Culture

Next time you're watching your favorite television show, take a moment to see if you can spot any clever usage of apostrophes from the characters—you might be shocked at how often this figure of speech is utilized to help actors convey their messages to audiences.

Even as early as Grecian times when Homer wrote "The Odyssey," apostrophes were utilized as literary devices to break from addressing the primary audience to instead speak to a third party, with the relatively impersonal narrator occasionally butting in to break the third wall and inform the audience of some plot device they may have missed.

In modern times, television shows —especially comedies— often utilize this feature to call out to their audiences. Such is the case when characters on "Battlestar Galactica" call out "Frakking toasters" every time something goes wrong on the space ship, with the toasters in questions being the humanoid Cylons whose goal is to destroy the remaining human population on board.

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Figures of Speech: The Apostrophe as a Literary Device." ThoughtCo, Apr. 19, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, April 19). Figures of Speech: The Apostrophe as a Literary Device. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Figures of Speech: The Apostrophe as a Literary Device." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 20, 2018).