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Foregrounding

Foregrounding

Have you heard of the term foregrounding? If not, don't worry! We will explore the meaning of foregrounding in English and take a look at some examples in literature. We will also consider foregrounding techniques; parallelism and deviation.

Foregrounding meaning

Foregrounding is a literary device that emphasises ideas and symbols through the use of attention-seeking linguistic techniques which either repeat content or break established patterns. Foregrounding is commonly seen when linguistic features or parts of the text stand out. This happens when something in the text is placed in the foreground. Foregrounding is a synonym for centre, focal point, and focus.

The stylistic effects of foregrounding include:

Foregrounding means making an image, symbol, or language a prominent or important feature. The device is used to estrange or defamiliarize the reader from the text and the content. Such disruptions in form and language help you experience fresh perspectives and responses to texts.

Foregrounding was initially formulated by Viktor Shkolvsky (1893-1984) and then developed by Jan Mukarovsky (1891-1975). The device was designed for a literary-aesthetic purpose, yet the concept of foregrounding has been prevalent for understanding perspectives in paintings as well. An example is Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893):

Foregrounding Watercolour copy of The Scream StudySmarterA watercolour copy of Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893)

The figure in The Scream draws your attention to the centre of the painting because it is foregrounded by its facial expression. The strict linearity of the bridge contrasts with the curving shape of the foreground and the background. In art, the object / person / thing in the lower middle of the frame is used as a foregrounding device.

Foregrounding devices in literature work to sharpen the reader's focus on the text. The reader has more insight into the painting's meaning and the authorial choices which have been made. Consider what specific word or pattern (broken or repeated) the author wants to call to attention for the reader to experience epiphanies or a new understanding of a work of art or literature.

Tip: Always consider in art and literature how objects and symbols are placed in the foreground.

Foregrounding and backgrounding

Within literature, both foregrounding and backgrounding are used. They are opposites of each other and are used as means to provide information to the reader.

Foregrounding definition:

Foregrounding is used to draw the reader's attention to specific points or details in the text.

Backgrounding definition:

Backgrounding is used to elaborate further on the points and details proposed in the foregrounding. Backgrounding provides background information.

Foregrounding examples in literature

Foregrounding in literature gains meaning as a contrast to the background. The figure seen against the background is applied to poetry, where the narrator or the subject of the poem is measured against the background of a regular or expected pattern.

In Dylan Thomas's elegy 'A Grief Ago' (1935), the figure of grief is 'She', the 'rose maid' or 'masted venus' who stands foregrounded against a backdrop filled with imagery such as the tower, the sea, and the sun. The grief Thomas experiences is focused on the figure of 'She'.

A grief ago,
She who was who I hold, the fats and flower, Or, water-lammed, from the scythe-sided thorn, Hell wind and sea, A stem cementing, wrestled up the tower, Rose maid and male, Or, masted venus, through the paddler's bowl Sailed up the sun.

The title of 'A grief ago' is doubly foregrounded. Grief is an emotional word rather than a marker of time (such as week or day), and so appears grammatically incorrect. The grammatical inconsistency makes the word stand out. Dylan Thomas asks us to think about measuring time through emotions. Foregrounding, however, is not as simple as contrasting a figure with its background. Specific words in literature are also used to show contrast and estrangement.

Foregrounding techniques

The foregrounding techniques include any stylistic distortion of some sort, 'either through an aspect of the text which deviates from a linguistic norm or, alternatively, where an aspect of the text is brought to the fore through repetition or parallelism.'¹( Azam Esmaeili, 2013). Parallelism and deviation are used to call your attention to the strangeness of a word or a character's actions in a literary work. Foregrounding is achieved by these techniques.

Tip: Have you noticed the way this article uses different colours or words in italics and bold to emphasise words? That is foregrounding.

The differences between foregrounding techniques, parallelism, and deviation are highlighted in David S. Miall and Don Kuiken's table2 below:

Foregrounding, Miall and Keiken's Types of Foregrounding, StudySmarterFig. 1 - An extract from Miall and Kuiken's table of foregrounding techniques.

Parallelism

Parallelism repeats content with unexpected regularity. It is the repetition of sounds, meanings, structures, and grammatical elements in writing and speaking to emphasise relations between aspects of the text. Sometimes, parallelism appears in single words which have slight variations of meaning such as 'bend' and 'curve', or 'climb' and 'ascent' for thematic emphasis. At other times, it is a literary device that creates parallel positions between opposite ideas. Parallelism can be inverted for stronger emphasis in sentences and plots.

Example One: Alexander Pope'sThe Rape of the Lock (1714) features parallelism through alliteration.

Resolved to win, he meditates the way,

By force to ravish, or by fraud betray.

Example Two: AR Ammons's Small Song (1990) shows parallelism in enjambment and the play of 'give way' with 'give away'.

Small song

The reeds give

way to the

Wind and give

the wind away

Example Three: James Baldwin's speech 'As Much Truth as One Can Bear' in 1962.

Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Parallelism is considered under the category of figures of speech. The technique takes forms such as:

  • Anaphora

  • Antithesis

  • Asyndeton

  • Epistrophe

And many others. The effect of the repeated phrase in a poem or work of fiction emphasizes the development of the work's content through identical phrases and subtle or overt changes to that phrase. Thus, the text is foregrounded by the repeated patterns, and these emphasize the modifications of the repeated phrases.

Tip: Parallelism and repetition differ because parallelism repeats content but with slight modifications, while repetition is the reuse of words, phrases and themes.

Deviation

Deviation is the setting up, and the deliberate breaking of, established patterns of language or sound. In poetry, deviations frequently occur in rhythm, rhyme, stanza layout, and any images or symbols which look out of place. Deviation is an unexpected irregularity of words, metaphors, and character development which work to enhance the reader's sense of dislocation from the literary work. Deviation violates rules and conventions.

John Hopkins's 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' (1918) features deviation in its choice of words. Here, a form of deviation called lexical deviation occurs in Stanza 13:

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow

Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

Hopkins uses the prefix 'un' to create new words not normally used in Standard English. Such a rule break is further emphasized by the previous line's multiple uses of internal rhyme ('wi-ry' and 'fie-ry') and the alliteration of 'w'. The 'w' sounds different from the 'u' which shows the unsettling deviation visually and sonically. Thus, the unchilding and unfathering has a more dramatic impact in the stanza. The word is placed in the foreground to emphasize its significance in the poem.

There are several types of deviation:

  • Grammatical - either morphological or syntactic (ie. Bad grammar or syntax rearrangement).
  • Lexical - playing with word meanings and definitions to create new words (such as Hopkin's unchilding and TS Eliot's foresuffered in 'The Wasteland' (1922).
  • Phonological - how language and sounds are affected by omissions or dialect spellings.
  • Think of your favorite rap or hip-hop song. How do they use wordplay and sounds to deviate from normal conventions of mainstream music?
  • Semantic - the play of meaning, with a frequent exploration of absurdity and nonsense (such as William Wordsworth's 'The child is father of the man' in 'My Heart Leaps Up' (1807).
  • Textual - how text is affected by the deviation.
  • Graphological - visual patterning of words, punctuation, or the poem itself.
  • Dialectal - the borrowing of features of regional or social dialects / slang (think of Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) and the use of African American Vernacular English, or Ebonics). This, too, relies on linguistics.
  • Register - Register is a 'language variety used by a particular group of people who share the same occupation.' Register mixing as a register deviation.
  • Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Poet for Our Times (1990) features a mix of dramatic monologue, to informal colloquial register, and newspaper headlines typical associated with the British tabloid press:' CECIL Keays ROW SHOCK TELLS EYETIE WAITER '.
  • Historical period - genre mixing or using archaic expressions of words in modern contexts, or vice versa.

External vs. internal deviations

Deviation is distinguished by the reader's response to certain language use and linguistic structure. External and internal deviations are deviations from some norm which is internal or external to the text. External and internal deviations are best seen in poetry. Any word, phrase, or sound that deviates from the norm is foregrounding.

External deviation

External deviation is when the author or poet breaks from the normal conventions of language use - such as sentences that are not grammatically correct or the use of nonsense words. The Dylan Thomas example of 'A Grief Ago' is an example of an external deviation because the poet's choice of 'grief' in the title deviates from normal poetic word and grammar choices.

George Herbert's poem 'Easter Wings' (1633) is another external deviation because the structure of the poem is meant to mimic angel wings while revisiting the ancient Greek tradition of shaped poems. The poem's structure is placed in the foreground to emphasise its significance in the poem.

Foregrounding Easter Wings poem StudySmarterHerbert's poem Easter Wings uses external deviation as the text is arranged to look like angel wings.

Internal deviation

Internal deviation is when the author or poet breaks from a pattern they have previously set up in the text, usually to striking effect (as an example of foregrounding).

Role of foregrounding in the analysis of a literary text: E. E. Cummings

Example: Edward Estlin Cummings's poetry uses lower-case initials irrespective of whether a new line begins a new sentence or not. He also styles his name as ee cummings in his poetic works. Cummings' works frequently deviate from the normal conventions of English language use as you see in the extract of his poem 'i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)':

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in

my heart) i am never without it (anywhere

i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear

However, Cummings uses occasional capitals or upper case-initials as a deviation from his own 'norm', as seen in his poem 'Buffalo Bill's' (1920) which is a critique of hero worship:

Buffalo Bill's

defunct

who used to

ride a watersmooth-silver

stallion

and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

Jesus

he was a handsome man

and what i want to know is

how do you like your blue-eyed boy

Mister Death

The Jesus and Mister Death are capitalized as an internal deviation in Cumming's poem. The placement of Jesus appears as an exclamation to express amazement or anger. The placement might also be Cummings playing with the meaning of the religious figure of Jesus, who is foregrounded above Buffalo Bill and Mister Death. The ambiguity is nevertheless there to be challenged and noticed. Cummings uses foregrounding in many of his poems.

Foregrounding - key takeaways

  • Foregrounding is a literary device that emphasizes ideas and symbols through attention-seeking techniques.
  • Foregrounding is used to estrange or defamiliarise the reader so they gain new perspectives on the text.
  • Foregrounding makes an image, symbol, or language a prominent or important feature.
  • Parallelism repeats content with unexpected regularity to emphasize relations.
  • Deviation is an unexpected irregularity that enhances the reader's sense of dislocation from the literary work.
  • External and internal deviations are deviations from some norm which is internal or external to the text.

¹Azam Esmaeili, 'Foregrounding in Two EE Cummings Poems: Its Implications for Teaching Poetry', Spring, Vol. 20 (2013).

2David S. Miall and Don Kuiken, Foregrounding, defamiliarization, and affect: Response to literary stories. Poetics, Vol. 2, Issue 5 (1994)

Frequently Asked Questions about Foregrounding

To foreground is to make an image, symbol, or the language a prominent or important feature as a contrast to the background.

 Parallelism and Deviation.

The types of deviation are grammatical, lexical, phonological, semantic, textual, graphological, dialectal, and also register and historical period.

Internal deviation is the break from an author's pattern which has been set up in their work.

External deviation is when the author or poet breaks from the normal conventions of language use.

Syntactic foregrounding is when word meanings and definitions are manipulated to create new words.

The foreground element in a sentence is the focal point or focus. Multiple sentences may have the same foreground.

We can spot foregrounding in poetry by looking for what naturally stands out. Then, we need to take note of which techniques are used to make something stand out. For example, if metaphors cause something to stand out, we're looking at semantic foregrounding.

Final Foregrounding Quiz

Question

What is foregrounding?

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Answer

To foreground is to make an image, symbol, or language a prominent or important feature as a contrast to the background.

Show question

Question

What is Deviation?


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Answer

Deviation is an unexpected irregularity.

Show question

Question

 What is Parallelism?


Show answer

Answer

Parallelism repeats content with unexpected regularity.

Show question

Question

What are the two techniques of foregrounding? 


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Answer

Deviation and Parallelism.

Show question

Question

What are the three levels of stylistic effect in foregrounding? 


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Answer

Grammatical level, phonetic level, semantic level.

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Question

Why do authors use foregrounding?


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Answer

To draw the reader's attention to a particular word or figure in the text by using estrangement and defamiliarization.

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Question

What are the types of deviation? 


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Answer

Grammatical, lexical, semantic, phonological, textual, graphological, dialectal, as well as register and historical period.

Show question

Question

What is External Deviation? 


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Answer

External deviation is when the author breaks from normal conventions of language use.

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Question

What is Internal Deviation?


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Answer

Internal Deviation is when the author or poet breaks from a pattern they have previously set up in their work.

Show question

Question

 What is the difference between Parallelism and Repetition?


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Answer

Parallelism repeats content with slight modifications or grammatical changes. Repetition is the reuse of words, phrases, or themes.

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Question

What is the synonym of 'foreground'?


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Answer

The synonyms for foreground are center, focal point, and focus.

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 Is Foregrounding used mainly in Art or Literature?


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Answer

Both!

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Question

Which of the following is not a type of deviation? 


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Answer

Phonemic

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Question

Which of the following is a technique of foregrounding?


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Answer

​Deviation

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Question

Which of the following is a type of deviation? 


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Answer

 Lexical

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Question

Fill in the blank:


Foregrounding is a ________ device.

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Answer

literary

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Question

Fill in the blank:


Parallelism _______ content with unexpected regularity. 

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Answer

repeats

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Question

________ deviation is when the author or poet breaks from the normal conventions of language use.

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Answer

External

Show question

Question

________ deviation is when the author or poet breaks from a pattern they have previously set up in the text, usually to striking effect.

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Answer

Internal

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Question

True or false?


Foregrounding means making an image, symbol, or language an unnoticeable or unimportant feature.

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Answer

False

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Question

Fill in the blank:


Foregrounding in literature gains meaning as a ________ to the background. 

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Answer

contrast

Show question

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Foregrounding was initially formulated by who?

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Answer

Viktor Shkolvsky

Show question

Question

True or false?


Foregrounding is prevalent in works of art as well as literature.

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Answer

True

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Question

Deviation ________ rules and conventions. 

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Answer

violates

Show question

Question

True or false?


Sometimes, parallelism appears in single words which have slight variations of meaning.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

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