So I have noticed in many of Shakespeare's poems that he used apostrophes in places where we don't usually see them now.

For Example: In the poem 'Fear No More' the first line is "Fear no more the heat o' the sun', why wasn't of used instead of o'? Also in another poem- "It is the star to every wand'ring bark".

So, Why were apostrophes used so vaguely in these Early Modern English poems?

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    Note that Shakespeare's language was not Old English (the language of Beowulf) but rather Early Modern English. Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 16:03
  • Compare <of> /ɒv/ with <o'> /ə/
    – Au101
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 17:43
  • 1
    The pronunciation of English was changing around Shakespeare's time. He made use of this. He could choose between the pronunciations of the time by using apostrophes to distinguish how certain syllables were pronounced. Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 22:15
  • @chaslyfromUK That would make a good answer, if you want to add some examples.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 0:05
  • 2
    Those apostrophes are hardly vague. They replace a letter, which is one of the uses apostrophes get put to. Aren't, don't, isn't are examples. Sometimes we shot-circuit words in this way, and it sticks. Sometimes, in verse, it makes the phrase flow better.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 9:07

3 Answers 3


(First, a note: this isn't Old English, but Early Modern English. Old English looks like this:

Hƿæt. Ƿe Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

It's much older.)

Shakespeare's use of the apostrophe isn't vague or arbitrary: it's marking where certain letters shouldn't be pronounced.

For example, the word wandering can be pronounced with either two syllables ("wan-dring") or three ("wan-der-ing"). By replacing the E with an apostrophe, Shakespeare is telling the actor to use the two-syllable pronunciation. If you try it with the three-syllable pronunciation there, you'll see it messes up the iambic pentameter.

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    Notice the same still happens in music; I’ve seen it many times in hymns at Church.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 22:27
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    Also, note that in the case of wandr'ing, a 2-syllable word was probably necessary to make the meter scan, rather than simply being a case of selecting one pronunciation over another. I'm less sure if o' scans differently than of.
    – chepner
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 13:50
  • @chepner: It doesn't but Heat o' the sun is an old fixed phrase.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 18:05

Shakespeare used apostrophes the exact same way we do—to signal that a sound is omitted.1

There's nothing vague about his usage. As Draconis explains, "wand'ring" makes it clear that the vowel spelled by the missing "e" between "d" and "r" is to be omitted.2 Usually, as here (but not with "o'" for "of"), this results in an entire syllable being dropped, which changes the scansion of the line, which is of course very important in metric verse.

In formal written English today, we mostly use apostrophes only in fixed contractions—e.g., "don't" for "do not" and "she's" for "she is". But they're used exactly the same way. "Don't" signals that the "o" sound in "not" (and therefore a whole syllable) is omitted.3

It may seem that there are so few of these contractions that we just learn each one as a separate word, and no longer have an "apostrophe rule". But a moment's reflection proves that can't be true. You can contract "is" or "has" onto almost any noun: "John's coming later", "The dog's got a bone", etc.

And, outside formal writing, people still use apostrophes in other locations, like writing "drinkin' and thinkin'" to signal the normal colloquial pronunciation instead of the one with a "g" at the end4—exactly as Shakespeare does with "o'". In every case, it works the same way for us as it did for Shakespeare.

In poetry (and sometimes song lyrics and other similar things) where scansion is important, people even still use apostrophes in exactly the same locations Shakespeare did. The only reason this doesn't come up in plays as often as in Shakespeare's day is that most plays aren't written to strict meter anymore.

There are a few cases that may seem strange, such as frequent "'d" for "ed" on the ends of words. What's going on there? Well, think of "I learned of a learned man"—the first "learned" is one syllable, the second is two.5 This distinction was more widespread in Shakespeare's day, so many "-ed" forms that can only be monosyllabic to us were ambiguous to him. So he spelled them with "'d" to force the monosyllabic pronunciation, exactly as with "wand'ring".

1. There are, of course, other uses of the apostrophe—possessive "William's" doesn't omit anything, nor does the disambiguating plural marker in "p's and q's", nor do borrowed words that were spelled with apostrophes in their native language, except when that native language used apostrophes for omission. But that's also the same today.

2. Of course you need to know enough about English orthography and pronunciation to know how to omit the sound properly—in this case, that "wandering" can be pronounced as both "wan-dring" and "wan-der-ing", so the apostrophe tells you to select the former. But that's not unique to apostrophes; all English spelling works that way.

3. And again, the rest is up to your existing knowledge. In fact, notice how much more "don't" changes from "do not", compared to "wand'ring" from "wandering". Which one would you call more "vague"?

4. Of course there's not actually a /g/ sound at the end. But native English speakers think there's a /g/ sound at the end, so when you're writing plays, poems, lyrics, etc., using the apostrophe to signal a native speaker to "drop the g" (or just writing "eye dialect" in a novel), the signal works.

5. British spelling today usually distinguishes them as "learnt" vs. "learned", while a few generations ago they instead used "learned" vs. "learnèd". But Americans spell them indistinguishably, which makes for a better example here.

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    Possessive use doesn't omit anything, but it does originate in omission as the older -es genitive form started omitting the e to become -s. It did though change to be used even where there wouldn't have been an e in the earlier form. A clearer example is the Anglicisation of names like Ó Raghallaigh as O'Reilly.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 0:39
  • @JonHanna Sure, diachronically it sort of signals an omission of -es, but even that isn't really accurate if you look at the way early printers used it (not to mention the plural "s'", adverbial genitives like "nowadays" that never had an apostrophe, etc.). Anyway, the same footnote already gives "p's and q's" and borrowed words as other examples, and anglicized names are effectively the same as borrowed words. Do you think any of that information needs to be added to the answer?
    – abarnert
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 3:16
  • The case of shall not > sha’n’t > shan’t might also be relevant. Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 15:06
  • @AlexShpilkin You mean because Shakespeare’s usage there was actually less vague than ours today? I suppose, but I don’t know that the extra complexity is worth getting into here. Do you think it’s needed? If so, do I also need to mention “won’t”, where we don’t just slide the “ll”, but also replace the “i” with an “o” making it even harder to reconstruct what’s going on?
    – abarnert
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 20:45
  • There is no hard "g" in "-ing". Hard "g" is [ɡ], the default sound of "n" is [n], and the default sound of "ng" is [ŋ], not [nɡ]. E.g. "sing" is pronounced /sɪŋ/, not /sɪnɡ/ ("sin"+"g"). [ŋ] is a velar nasal. [ɡ] is a voiced velar stop.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 23:22

Shakespeare used the apostrophes for actors to not pronounce the left out letters so it would resemble spoken language of the time.

Actors reading it would know what to leave out, possibly also to show or help them express social class through informal speech or make the plays more accessible to the audience.

On 1 the possessive seems to omit ‘hi’ in William’s from ‘William his’ or in the female case ‘her’ from ‘Anna hers’ to Anna’s.

On 4 learned does not use an apostrophe there. It is an accent grave, not pronounced in English which would change the meaning to something ridiculous.

  • 1
    While this is absolutely correct, mind elaborating a little bit more? For example, you could relate this to modern use of apostrophes ("can't" for "cannot"), or explain why leaving out those sounds was important.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 17:56
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    Your points 1-4 seem to be a comment on @abamert's answer, not an answer to the OP. Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 23:45
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    The possessive 's isn't short for his or hers -- it's just the genitive case ending.
    – TKR
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 0:17
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    @TKR While absolutely true, perhaps more to the point is that it was never short for his or hers. The final -s in those forms does come from the same Proto-Germanic ending, but the construction is William-s and hi-s, not *William-[hi]s.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 2:55
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    "learnèd" uses an accent grave to mark that the "e" should be pronounced; "learn'd" uses an apostrophe to mark that the "e" should not be pronounced. These are obviously not the same thing. And neither one changes the meaning to something ridiculous. (I'm not sure what ridiculous meaning you were even implying here.) And both can be found in printed, professional writing.
    – abarnert
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 3:26

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