Apostrophe is a rhetorical figure that is most commonly found (and thought of) in lyric poetry. It also occurs in other literary and cultural forms—memoir, prose fiction, song, theater, and cinema.
Derived from the Greek prefix “apo” (away from) and “strophe” (turn or twist), the word “apostrophe” is often confused with a punctuation mark, a single inverted comma used in English to denote a possessive (as in “ the Queen’s English” or “the cat’s whiskers”). In this context, an apostrophe stands in for something absent. Anglo-Saxon, a heavily inflected language and the basis for modern English, had a genitive case where nouns used in a possessive way tended to end in “es” (“cyninges” was the Anglo-Saxon for “King’s”). This more common sense of the word “apostrophe” denotes, therefore, a punctuation mark that stands in for an elided letter “e” or vowel sound.
In the context of rhetoric and poetry “apostrophe” has come to denote what occurs when a writer or speaker addresses a person or entity who is dead, absent, or inanimate to start with. The figure is described by Cicero and Quintillian. The former described it as a “figure that expresses grief or indignation.” Quintillian emphasized its capacity to be “wonderfully stirring” for an audience. For both rhetoricians, apostrophe was something that occurred in a public context, usually a debate or trial, and was part of the arsenal of political rhetoric. Apostrophe has therefore a double valence beyond the common understanding as a punctuation mark that stands in for a missing possessive “e.” It denotes what occurs when a speaker turns from addressing her audience to addressing another figure or entity, one who may or may not be present, alive, or even animate. And it has also come to denote that very process of addressing the absent, the dead, and the inanimate.
The figure occurs in medieval rhetoric and poetry, in Shakespeare’s poetry and plays, and has come to be identified with lyric poetry itself, especially through the work and legacy of the literary theorist Paul de Man. For him, a poem describing a set of circumstances has less claim to the status of lyric poetry than a poem apostrophizing aspects of those circumstances. In part as a result of de Man’s influence, apostrophe has come to be connected with different forms of complicated affect—most notably grief, embarrassment, and any number of ways in which human life can be seen or experienced as vulnerable, open to question, or imbued with potential. It has also been used to explore complicated legal and ethical terrains where the boundary between the living and the dead, the present and the absent, the animate and the inanimate can be difficult to draw or ascertain. Two areas of contemporary criticism and thought for which the employment of the figure is most resonant are therefore eco-criticism and “thing theory” (most notably the work of Jane Bennett). The possibilities of apostrophe continue to be regularly employed in political rhetoric, song, poetry, theater, fiction, and cinema.