What Is Foregrounding?

Definition and Examples

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In literary studies and stylistics, foregrounding is a the linguistic strategy of calling attention to certain language features in order to shift the reader's attention from what is said to how it is said. In systemic functional linguistics, foregrounding refers to a prominent portion of text that contributes meaning, contrasted with the background, which provides relevant context for the foreground.

Linguist M.A.K. Halliday has characterized foregrounding as motivated prominence, providing the definition: "The phenomenon of linguistic highlighting, whereby some features of the language of a text stand out in some way," (Halliday 1977).

A translation of the Czech word aktualizace, the concept of foregrounding was introduced by Prague structuralists in the 1930s. Read 

Examples of Foregrounding in Stylistics

The study of literary stylistics or distinctive styles in writing looks at the role of foregrounding by analyzing the effect that it has on a piece as a whole. In other words, how does foregrounding impact the composition of a piece and the experience of readers? These excerpts from scholarly writing on the subject attempt to define this.

  • "Foregrounding is essentially a technique for 'making strange' in language, or to extrapolate from Shklovsky's Russian term ostranenie, a method of 'defamiliarisation' in textual composition. ... Whether the foregrounded pattern deviates from a norm, or whether it replicates a pattern through parallelism, the point of foregrounding as a stylistic strategy is that it should acquire salience in the act of drawing attention to itself," (Simpson 2004).
  • "[T]his opening line from a poem by Roethke, ranked high [for the presence of foregrounding]: 'I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils.' The pencils are personified; it contains an unusual word, 'inexorable'; it contains repeated phonemes such as /n/ and /e/," (Miall 2007).
  • "In literature, foregrounding may be most readily identified with linguistic deviation: the violation of rules and conventions, by which a poet transcends the normal communicative resources of the language, and awakens the reader, by freeing him from the grooves of cliché expression, to a new perceptivity. Poetic metaphor, a type of semantic deviation, is the most important instance of this type of foregrounding," (Childs and Fowler 2006).

Examples of Foregrounding in Systemic Functional Linguistics

Foregrounding from the perspective of systemic functional linguistics presents a slightly different angle, described in the following passage by linguist Russel S. Tomlin, that looks at the device on a much smaller scale. "The basic idea in foregrounding is that the clauses which make up a text can be divided into two classes. There are clauses which convey the most central or important ideas in text, those propositions which should be remembered. And there are clauses which, in one way or another, elaborate on the important ideas, adding specificity or contextual information to help in the interpretation of the central ideas.

The clauses which convey the most central or important information are called foregrounded clauses, and their propositional content is foreground information. The clauses which elaborate the central propositions are called backgrounded clauses, and their propositional content is background information. So, for example, the boldfaced clause in the text fragment below conveys foregrounded information while the italicized clauses convey background

(5) A text fragment: written edited 010:32​​
The smaller fish is now in an air bubble
spinning
and turning
and making its way upward

This fragment was produced by an individual recalling action she witnessed in a brief animated film (Tomlin 1985). Clause 1 conveys foregrounded information because it relates the critical proposition for the discourse at this point: the location of the 'smaller fish.' The state of the air bubble and its motion are less central to that description so that the other clauses seem merely to elaborate or develop a part of the proposition contained in clause 1," (Tomlin 1994).

M.A.K. Halliday offers another description of foregrounding in systemic functional linguistics: "A great deal of stylistic ​foregrounding depends on an analogous process, by which some aspect of the underlying meaning is represented linguistically at more than one level: not only through the semantics of the text—the ideational and interpersonal meanings, as embodied in the content and in the writer's choice of his role—but also by direct reflection in the lexicogrammar or the phonology," (Halliday1978).

Sources

  • Childs, Peter, and Roger Fowler. The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. Routledge, 2006.
  • Halliday, M.A.K. Explorations in the Functions of Language. Elsevier Science Ltd., 1977.
  • Halliday, M.A.K. ​Language as Social Semiotic. Edward Arnold, 1978.
  • Miall, David S. Literary Reading: Empirical & Theoretical Studies. Peter Lang, 2007.
  • Simpson, Paul. Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge, 2004.
  • Tomlin, Russell S. "Functional Grammars, Pedagogical Grammars, and Communicative Language Teaching." Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 1994.