APOSTROPHE: (noun) a punctuation mark that shows possession or marks the omission of one or more letters (contraction) . a figure of speech
I have heard academics—mainly religion scholars strutting their Greek—complain about the limitations of English when they want to make a distinction in the meaning of a word so that their audience will better understand what they’re trying to say. They bemoan the fact that English has only one word for love, whereas the Greek has three or four. Well, with the word apostrophe, English has two totally different meanings for the one word. I hope this is good enough to mollify those scholars.
We know about the apostrophe as a mark of punctuation, so I won’t spend much time with that aspect of the word, except to say that the apostrophe should not be used to make plurals of regular English nouns. It is incorrect to write “Citizen’s have a duty to vote.” Instead we should write “Citizens have a duty to vote”–no apostrophe. If a citizen owns something, then we need the apostrophe: “A citizen’s rights must not be denied because of race or ethnicity.” We should also remember to place the apostrophe after the plural of the word when it already has an “s” at the end. For example, “Citizens’ rights must not be tampered with.”
The kind of apostrophe that I am interested in is the literary term. It is an 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 isn’t as crazy as it sounds. You do it all the time, talking to your computer when it’s too slow, or telling your alarm clock to be quiet when it rings in the middle of a good snooze. Of course, these are not by any means literary, but they are apostrophes nonetheless. Think also of the nursery rhymes that you repeated long ago: “Bah, bah, Black Sheep, have you any wool?” or “Twinkle, twinkle little star/ how I wonder what you are.” In each case you were talking to a sheep and a star that couldn’t understand you and couldn’t answer. These are examples of an apostrophe.
Many writers have used apostrophes to make a point. William Hodgson wrote a poem I memorized and enjoyed reciting in elementary school. “Time, you old Gypsy Man, will you not stay/ Put up your caravan just for a day?” The author appeals to time, asking it to slow down, stop flitting so fast, something we would like to happen when we have a full schedule.
Last week the death of a good friend made me think of John Donne’s poem “Death, Be Not Proud,” a famous example of the use of an apostrophe. The first two lines of the poem are well known. “Death, be not proud though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” John Donne, a seventeenth century poet, and also the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, seems to shake his fist in death’s face, telling him he isn’t as strong as he pretends to be or as people think he is, because dying is just like going to sleep, and, like sleep, death happens to everyone, even the powerful and the great in this world. Death really isn’t in control here. Donne further mockingly tells Death that there are other things that can make us sleep just as well as Death can, so Death doesn’t have a lock on this business of putting people to sleep. Donne ends the poem with two powerfully hopeful lines:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou too shalt die.
In the end, Death will be vanquished, as Revelation assures us; therefore, we can look forward triumphantly to the time when “Death shall be no more,” because it “too shall die.”
In the poem, although Death is treated like a person, it is an abstraction and cannot hear; neither can it respond, yet the poet speaks to it as though it can. Here he uses the figure of speech called a personification in addition to the apostrophe. It may be that some people are tempted to see praying to God as an apostrophe, a formulaic address to an unseen Power whom they cannot see and who, they believe, doesn’t hear them. To the person of faith, however, prayer is directed to a living, awesome God, who sees, hears, understands, and responds. The words “Our Father who art in heaven” connects us with a living Source who can be “touched with all the feelings of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15). Talking with Him is no figure of speech. It is the utmost reality.