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What is foregrounding?

In this video, Professor Dan McIntyre explains the key stylistic concept of foregrounding and its origins in relation to art.
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I’m out here on the hills above Holmfirth. It’s quite windy, but the scenery is amazing. Behind me, you can see the moors in the distance, but my guess is you’re not paying much attention to what’s going on in the background. You’re far more likely to be concentrating on me. And the reason for that is I’m foregrounded in the frame. I stand out against the background and I stand out for a number of reasons. Let’s think about what they are. First of all, I’m a bigger part of the image than the hills in the background. That is, I take up proportionally more of the frame. Second, I’m a different colour.
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My blue coat stands out against the natural colours of the landscape. And finally, unlike the hills behind me, which are static, I’m a dynamic part of the image. I’m talking and I’m moving, and all of these things mean that you pay more attention to me than what’s going on in the background. In stylistic terms I’m foregrounded. The term foregrounding comes from the art world. Paintings are made up of a background, a middle ground and a foreground. And anything that’s foregrounded attracts your attention, your eye is drawn to it. What’s more, you tend to attach more significance to items that are foregrounded.
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In Van Gough’s Cafe Terrace at Night, for example, it’s the cafe itself bathed in golden light, which is foregrounded against the cold blue and black of the street beyond. And the cafe’s full of people. That’s where all the action in the painting is happening. Foregrounding is a key principle in stylistics, because it turns out that it’s not just images that can contain foregrounded elements. You can also foreground elements of language. And it was this discovery that sparked the beginnings of stylistics.

What makes certain parts of a picture or scene stand out in relation to the rest? In this video, Dan McIntyre explains the concept of foregrounding and its origins in relation to art.

Foregrounding is a key concept in stylistics and underpins most stylistic analysis. In the next few steps on the course, we will see how the basic distinction between a foreground and a background can be applied to language, or the specific ways in which linguistic choices are made to stand out.

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Stylistics: Using Linguistics to Explore Texts and Meaning

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