Foregrounding is the practice of making something stand out from the surrounding words or images. It is "the 'throwing into relief' of the linguistic sign against the background of the norms of ordinary language." The term was first associated with Paul Garvin in the 1960s, who used it as a translation of the Czech aktualisace (literally "to actualise"), borrowing the terms from the Prague school of the 1930s.
There are two main types of foregrounding: parallelism and deviation. Parallelism can be described as unexpected regularity, while deviation can be seen as unexpected irregularity. As the definition of foregrounding indicates, these are relative concepts. Something can only be unexpectedly regular or irregular within a particular context. This context can be relatively narrow, such as the immediate textual surroundings (referred to as a 'secondary norm') or wider such as an entire genre (referred to as a 'primary norm').
For example, the last line of a poem with a consistent metre may be foregrounded by changing the number of syllables it contains. This would be an example of a deviation from a secondary norm. In the following poem by E. E. Cummings, there are two types of deviation:
light’s lives lurch
a once world quickly from rises
army the gradual of unbeing fro
on stiffening greenly air and to ghosts go
drift slippery hands tease slim float twitter faces
Only stand with me, love! against these its
until you are, and until i am dreams...
Firstly, most of the poem deviates from 'normal' language (primary deviation). In addition, there is secondary deviation in that the penultimate line is unexpectedly different from the rest of the poem. Nursery rhymes, adverts and slogans often exhibit parallelism in the form of repetition and rhyme, but parallelism can also occur over longer texts. For example, jokes are often built on a mixture of parallelism and deviation. They often consist of three parts or characters. The first two are very similar (parallelism) and the third one starts out as similar, but our expectations are thwarted when it turns out different in end (deviation).
Foregrounding can occur on all levels of language (phonology, graphology, morphology, lexis, syntax, semantics and pragmatics). It is generally used to highlight important parts of a text, to aid memorability and/or to invite interpretation.