apostrophe (figure of speech)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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)


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 turne tale, aversio, and aversion.

Apostrophe is a form of personification found more often in poetry than in prose. It is "a forceful, emotional device," says Brendan McGuigan. "Creative writing and persuasive essays that lean heavily on emotional strength are ideal places for apostrophe.

In formal persuasive and informative essays, using apostrophe might seem a bit melodramatic and distracting" (Rhetorical Devices, 2007). 

(For the mark of punctuation, see apostrophe [punctuation].)

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "turning away"

Examples and Observations

  • "Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
    How I wonder what you are.
    Up above the world so high,
    Like a diamond in the sky."
    (Jane Taylor, "The Star," 1806)
  • "Hello darkness, my old friend,
    I’ve come to talk with you again"
    (Paul Simon, "The Sound of Silence," 1964) 
  • "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."
    (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818)
  • "O western wind, when wilt thou blow
    That the small rain down can rain?"
    (anonymous, 16th c.)
  • "O wind, rend open the heat,
    cut apart the heat,
    rend it to tatters."
    (H.D. [Hilda Doolittle], "Heat," 1915)
  • "Death be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
    For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
    Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
    (John Donne, "Death be not proud")
  • "Apostrophe! we thus address
    More things than I should care to guess.
    Apostrophe! I did invoke
    Your figure even as I spoke."
    (John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse. Yale University Press, 1989)
  • "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—"
    (John Keats, "Bright Star," 1819)
  • "How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
    sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
    How often has my spirit turned to thee!"
    (William Wordsworth, "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798")
  • "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."
    (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
  • "I believe it is the lost wisdom of my grandfather
    Whose ways were his own and who died before I could ask.

    "Forerunner, I would like to say, silent pilot,
    Little dry death, future,
    Your indirections are as strange to me
    As my own. I know so little that anything
    You might tell me would be a revelation."
    (W.S. Merwin, "Sire." The Second Four Books of Poems. Copper Canyon Press, 1993)
  • "Then come, sweet death, and rid me of this grief."
    (Queen Isabella in Edward II by Christopher Marlowe)
  • "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."
    (Billy Collins, "To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now")
  • "Dear Ella
    Our Special First Lady of Song
    You gave your best for so long."
    (Kenny Burrell, "Dear Ella")
  • Ironic Functions of Apostrophe
    "Apostrophe is a device by which a speaker begins to address an audience other than the one to which he or she is speaking. Like aporia, it is part of the irony family. In the middle section of his 1860 address at Cooper Union in New York, [Abraham] Lincoln purported to 'say a few words' to the people of the South. In so doing, he spoke to his New York audience by using fictional southern listeners as a frame. . . . Apostrophe is not necessarily restricted to oral communication. A newspaper ad from a tobacco company purportedly directed at young people, but appearing in the business or editorial section of the newspaper, uses young people as a frame through which to reach a different audience."
    (James Jasinksi, Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies. Sage, 2001)
  • Extended Apostrophe in John Keats's "To Autumn"

    Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
    With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
    Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

    Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
    Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
    Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
    Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
    Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
    Steady thy laden head across a brook;
    Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
    Think not of them, thou hast thy music too—
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
    And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
    Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
    Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
    The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
    (John Keats, "To Autumn," 1819)

Pronunciation: ah-POS-tro-fee