The other aspect of the word apostrophe is its literary quality, where it is used as a form of address to someone who is absent as if the person were present and able to answer, or it is an address to an inanimate object or an abstraction as if it is capable of hearing and understanding and can respond. This is not as fanciful as it sounds. We do it all the time—talking to our computer when it’s too slow, or telling our alarm clock to be quiet when it rings in the middle of a good snooze. These are not literary by any means, but they are apostrophes nonetheless. Think of the nursery rhyme that you repeated as a child: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star/how I wonder what you are.” And how about “Bah, bah, Black Sheep, have you any wool?” In each case, you were talking to a star and a sheep that couldn’t understand and couldn’t respond. You were using an apostrophe.
I’m sure the poets among us are already acquainted with this form of the apostrophe, and some may have even used it in their pieces. It is a popular devise that poets use to make a point. William Hodgson wrote a well-known poem I learned in grade school. “Time, you old gypsy Man, will you not stay? /Put up your caravan just for a day.” The author appeals to time to slow down, stop flitting so fast, something we all would like to have happen when we are behind schedule.
John Donne’s famous poem “Death Be Not Proud” is one of the best examples of a literary apostrophe. Donne, a seventeenth century poet and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, seems to shake his fist in Death’s face, letting him know he doesn’t have all the power that he presumes to have. In the end Death will be vanquished, quite reassuring during this time of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic. Although Death is treated like a person in the poem, it is an abstraction and cannot hear, neither can it respond.
Can the apostrophe be used in narrative fiction? Absolutely! James Joyce did it. At the end of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he has Stephen Dedalus address Life: “Amen. So be it. Welcome, O Life!” Many times the literary apostrophe begins with “O” or “Oh.” It is used to express strong emotion, such as love. If the main character in your short story or novel is in a romantic relationship with a soldier who is far away on the battlefield, what’s to prevent you from having her address him directly out of the depth of her longing for him? It would be a way to show rather than to tell. The technique is a good one but shouldn’t be overdone.
There is much versatility in the apostrophe. Hardly any one individual has a corner on its use either as a mark of punctuation or as a literary device. We would do well to imitate its versatility in the practice of our craft.
Judith Nembhard was born in Jamaica and grew up amid the island’s lush scenery, which influenced her writing. Her early fascination with language led her to complete three degrees in English, including a doctorate from the University of Maryland College Park. Her articles have appeared in professional journals, religious and secular magazines, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. She writes Christian fiction. She has earned writing awards in the Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, Deep River Books Contest, and Southern Writers Magazine Short Story Contest. She is featured in the Southern Writers Magazine Galaxy of Stars.
Her book, Dark Days On The Fairest Island
was a finalist in the Southern Christian Writers Conference (SCWC) Notable Book Award in its category.
Judith is a woman of faith and has shared her spiritual vision with audiences at commencement and Women’s Day celebrations and women’s retreats. She has given workshops on writing and improving public speaking skills.
Judith has two adult sons. She has teaching and writing as her greatest loves and reading as her most passionate hobby. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.