What is Foregrounding?

Definition and Examples


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In literary studies and stylistics, linguistic strategies that call attention to themselves, causing the reader's attention to shift away from what is said to how it is said.

In systemic functional linguistics, foregrounding refers to a prominent portion of a text that contributes to the total meaning. (The background provides the relevant context for the foreground.)

Linguist M.A.K. Halliday has characterized foregrounding as motivated prominence: "the phenomenon of linguistic highlighting, whereby some features of the language of a text stand out in some way" (Explorations in the Functions of Language, 1973).


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

Foregrounding in Stylistics: Examples and Observations

  • "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."
    -Paul Simpson, Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge, 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/."
    -David S. Miall, Literary Reading: Empirical & Theoretical Studies. Peter Lang, 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."
    -Peter Childs and Roger Fowler, The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. Routledge, 2006

    Foregrounding in systemic functional linguistics: Examples and Observations

    • 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
      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."
      -Russell S. Tomlin, "Functional Grammars, Pedagogical Grammars.". Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994
    • "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."
      -M.A.K. Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic. Edward Arnold, 1978