Figures of Speech: The Apostrophe as a Literary Device

blue moon
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In addition to being a punctuation mark, 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 more 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.

The device is also used in the carol "Oh Christmas Tree" as people sing not only ​about the cherished holiday topiary but to it.

Importance of Apostrophe in Poetry, Prose, and Song

As a form of direct address to an inanimate object, apostrophe serves to further poetic imagery and often emphasizes the emotional weight of objects in our everyday world. The figure of speech serves a vital function in everyone from Mary Shelley's works ( "Scoffing devil! Again do I vow vengeance" from "Frankenstein" to Simon & Garfunkel's hit smash "The Sound of Silence" ("Hello darkness, my old friend,/I’ve come to talk with you again").

Apostrophe happens in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" as the narrator starts out speaking to an absent "thee": "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" It also appears in the play "Hamlet" when the title character is in a rage about his mother marrying Claudius. Hamlet calls out to the abstraction "frailty" in Act 1: "Frailty, thy name is woman!"

In Edgar Allen Poe's works, he distinctly speaks to a raven sitting "upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door as if it could understand him in the poem of the same name, and in the poem "To One in Paradise," he starts out addressing his love (absent from the scene) thus: "Thou wast all that to me, love."

Just as in poetry, the literary device comes up in song often, such as any time that the words are directed to someone not able to hear. Or in addressing the inanimate. In the smash #1 hit by the doo-wop group the Marcels from 1961, the "Blue Moon" is addressed: "Blue moon, you saw me standing alone/without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own." 

Categorically, apostrophe fits 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 uses the speech to emphasize his or her description of that object.

More Examples From 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 used 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 members of some plot device they may have missed. 

In modern times, television shows—especially comedies—often use 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 spaceship, with the toasters in questions being the humanoid Cylons whose goal is to destroy the remaining human population on board. 

When "Star Trek"'s Captain James Kirk waves his fist in the air and yells "Khaaan!" at his absent nemesis, that's also a use of apostrophe.

In the movie "Cast Away," to keep from losing his mind, the character Chuck Noland, played by Tom Hanks, talks to a volleyball, Wilson. Fortunately, it doesn't talk back.

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.