Apostrophe as literary term

But apostrophe is not just the name for the comma-shaped punctuation mark that hangs over the text: it is also a literary device, a figure of speech used when a speaker addresses remarks to a third party rather than their actual audience.

It may sound unusual, but it is far more common than you might expect.

Perhaps the earliest example many of us encounter is the children’s song ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, but it can also be used in rhetoric.

Rhetorical apostrophe

For example, if Labour politician Ed Miliband decides to address remarks to his Tory counterpart David Cameron in an interview with host David Dimbleby that would be a form of apostrophe.

It is exactly the same word as the punctuation mark, with the same roots in Greek, which meant ‘to turn away’, because the character figuratively or literally turns away from one party to address a third.

Its roots are in drama, but it also appears in poetry and even sometimes prose, and is often addressed to an imaginary object or quality.

Example of literary apostrophe

For example, St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians includes the famous line ‘O death, where is thy sting?’

It can even be argued that when you rail against your unreliable broadband connection with the occasional ‘What is wrong with you?!’, you are engaged in apostrophe.

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