Apostrophe in Literature: Definition, Examples & Uses
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. What is an apostrophe in literature?
  2. How does an apostrophe function in literature?
  3. Examples of apostrophe in literature
  4. Notable uses of apostrophe in plays
  5. Apostrophe in poetry
  6. Why use apostrophe in literature?

Imagine reading a book where the main character suddenly starts speaking to the wind or addressing a person who isn't even there. This might sound strange in real life, but in literature, it's a common technique called an apostrophe. And no, we're not talking about the punctuation mark! This blog is all about the definition of apostrophe (literary term), its uses, and examples. So, if you've ever wondered why authors have their characters talk to inanimate objects or absent people, you're in the right place.

What is an apostrophe in literature?

Before we dive into the depths of literature, let's get a clear understanding of what an apostrophe is in this context. Remember, we're not talking about the little mark that shows possession or contraction in grammar!

Definition of Apostrophe

An apostrophe, when we're talking literature, refers to when a speaker in a play, poem, or prose directly addresses someone who isn't present, an inanimate object, or a concept. It might sound like a complex term, but you've probably come across it more times than you realize. To simplify the definition of apostrophe (literary term), think of it as the act of turning away from the audience or other characters to address a third party.

The Greek Origin

Like many literary terms, 'apostrophe' has its roots in Ancient Greece. Derived from the Greek word 'apostrephein', it literally means 'to turn away'. This makes sense when you think about it: the speaker is turning away from their current conversation to address someone or something else.

Not Just for Drama

While you might think the apostrophe is only used in highbrow literature or dramatic plays, you'd be surprised. It's found in all kinds of writing — from the grand soliloquies in Shakespeare's plays to the lyrics of your favorite songs. Yes, that's right. When Taylor Swift sings to an old flame or a memory, that's an apostrophe!

Simply put, the apostrophe is a tool that writers use to bring their thoughts and feelings to life, making their work more engaging and relatable. It's a way of breaking the fourth wall in literature, allowing characters to share their innermost thoughts and feelings directly with the readers.

How does an apostrophe function in literature?

Now that we've covered the basic definition of apostrophe (literary term), let's look at how it actually works in literature. What purpose does it serve? Why do authors use it? Here's the lowdown.

Expressing Emotion

An apostrophe is a great way for a writer to showcase a character's emotions. When a character addresses an absent person or an inanimate object, they're usually expressing deep feelings or thoughts. It's like they're thinking out loud, letting you, the reader, into their heart and mind.

Adding Dramatic Effect

Ever read a scene in a book that gave you goosebumps? The apostrophe might have something to do with it. By having a character speak directly to something that can't respond, a writer can create a sense of drama and tension. It's a way of making the reader pause and take notice.

Creating a Connection

When a character uses an apostrophe, they're speaking directly to you, the reader. This can create a powerful connection, making you feel like you're right there in the scene. It's a technique that makes literature more engaging and immersive.

Providing Insight

Finally, an apostrophe can give you a unique insight into a character's mind. It can reveal their hopes, fears, desires, and regrets. It's a window into their soul, allowing you to understand them on a deeper level.

In essence, the apostrophe is a versatile tool that writers can use to add depth and complexity to their work. It's a way of bringing characters to life and drawing readers into the story.

Examples of apostrophe in literature

Having grasped the definition of apostrophe (literary term) and its function, let's now explore some classic examples from literature. These instances will give you a better sense of how authors use this technique to enrich their narratives.

Jane Eyre's Address to the Reader

In Charlotte Bronte's famous novel "Jane Eyre", the protagonist often uses apostrophe to speak directly to the reader. For instance, she says, "Reader, I married him." This direct address draws us into Jane's world, making her experiences feel personal and real.

Frankenstein's Lament

In Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", the tormented creature uses apostrophe to express his anguish. "Oh, stars and clouds and winds, you are all against me!" This gives us a raw glimpse into the creature's psyche, emphasizing his isolation and despair.

Hamlet's Soliloquy

Shakespeare's plays are filled with examples of apostrophe, but perhaps the most famous is Hamlet's soliloquy. "To be or not to be, that is the question." Here, Hamlet is addressing the abstract concept of existence, revealing his inner turmoil and philosophical musings.

These examples illustrate the power of apostrophe in literature. It allows authors to dive deep into a character's thoughts and emotions, creating a more vivid and engaging reading experience.

Notable uses of apostrophe in plays

Now that we've glimpsed some everyday examples of the definition of apostrophe (literary term), let's turn our attention to its use in plays. This format offers unique opportunities for apostrophe as characters often speak directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall.

Macbeth's Dagger Scene

In William Shakespeare's "Macbeth", the title character uses apostrophe in the famous dagger scene. Macbeth, questioning his sanity, speaks to the vision of the dagger: "Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?" This instance of apostrophe provides a dramatic effect - it's a powerful tool for revealing Macbeth's inner turmoil.

The Fool's Speech in King Lear

"King Lear", another Shakespearean play, uses apostrophe in the Fool's speeches. The Fool often addresses the audience directly, offering commentary on the action of the play: "This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen." This use of apostrophe serves to connect the audience to the play's events, making them feel like part of the action.

Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman

Apostrophe isn't only found in Shakespeare. In Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman", the protagonist Willy Loman often speaks to characters who aren't present, such as his dead brother Ben. "Ben, how did you do it?" Through this, Miller uses apostrophe to reveal Willy's desperation and his struggle with reality.

As these examples show, the use of apostrophe in plays can create a deeper bond between the characters and the audience. It allows us to witness the characters' innermost thoughts and feelings, making the play more engaging and emotionally resonant.

Apostrophe in poetry

Let's huddle around the warm hearth of poetry, a place where the definition of apostrophe (literary term) really shines. In the realm of poetry, the apostrophe technique often helps poets express deep emotions or create vivid imagery.

John Keats's "Bright Star"

John Keats, a beloved poet of the Romantic era, uses apostrophe in his sonnet "Bright Star". In the poem, Keats directly addresses a star, revealing his longing for eternal love: "Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art." This apostrophe gives the poem an intimate and personal tone, as if Keats is sharing his innermost feelings with us.

Emily Dickinson's "A Bird Came Down the Walk"

Emily Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk” also uses apostrophe. Here, Dickinson addresses an ordinary bird, capturing its actions with her pen: "Oh, Bird, come down the walk!" This use of apostrophe breathes life into the bird and invites readers to share Dickinson's gentle observation of nature.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's lengthy narrative poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is another brilliant example of using apostrophe in poetry. At one point, the Mariner, plagued by guilt, addresses the water snakes in the ocean: "O blessed living things!" Through apostrophe, Coleridge turns the water snakes into symbols of nature's beauty and innocence, amplifying the Mariner's remorse.

These instances of apostrophe in poetry illustrate how the technique can enhance the emotional depth and imagery of a poem. By addressing objects, animals, or abstract ideas directly, poets can make their works more relatable and emotionally charged.

Why use apostrophe in literature?

So, you've learned about the definition of apostrophe (literary term), and you've seen it in action in poetry and plays. But why do writers bother with it? What makes apostrophe such a valuable tool in literature?

Expressing Emotion

Firstly, apostrophe allows authors to express deep emotions. By speaking directly to an object or person, the author can convey feelings of love, anger, frustration, or longing. It's like having a heart-to-heart with your diary—sometimes, it's just easier to pour out your feelings when you're not really talking to anyone.

Creating Engagement

Secondly, apostrophe can make a piece of writing more engaging. Like a tour guide pointing out the sights, apostrophe draws the reader's attention to specific elements in the story. This can make the narrative more fascinating and memorable.

Adds Dramatic Effect

Lastly, apostrophe can add a dramatic effect. Imagine a character in a novel shouting at the sky or a poet serenading the moon. These moments make the reading experience richer and more impactful, don't they?

In conclusion, apostrophe serves as a powerful device in literature. It is not just a stylistic choice, but a tool that can evoke emotion, engage readers, and add drama. So, the next time you come across an apostrophe in a book or poem, take a moment to appreciate the writer's skill and creativity. Who knows, you might even find yourself inspired to use apostrophe in your own writing!

If you're fascinated by the use of apostrophe in literature and want to explore more about literary devices, be sure to check out the workshop 'Wordplay' by Celina Rodriguez. This workshop will help you master various literary techniques, enriching your writing and deepening your understanding of the power of language.