Foregrounding in poetic discourse: Between deviation and cognitive constraints

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Foregrounding theory generally assumes that poetic language deviates from norms characterizing the ordinary use of language (e.g. at the phonological, grammatical, semantic or pragmatic levels) and that this deviation interferes with cognitive principles and processes that make communication possible. However, a neglected issue in foregrounding theory is whether any constraints exist, and if so, what characterizes them. The present article proposes that foregrounding theory should be complemented by a cognitive theory that specifies constraints on such deviations, on the basis of theoretical and empirical considerations. Due to the privileged status of figurative language among the foregrounding devices, this general argument is illustrated by a close analysis of two figurative types, similes and oxymora. The analysis examines their distribution in poetic discourse and investigates the psychological processes involved in the way people comprehend them. It is proposed that for each of these figures there is a set of existing structures that could equally instantiate them as a foregrounding device. However, poetic discourse, both cross-linguistically and cross-culturally, robustly favours the use of the cognitively simpler option. The implications of these empirical findings are discussed in the light of foregrounding theory.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-181
Number of pages13
JournalLanguage and Literature
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2007


  • Cognitive constraints
  • Cognitive poetics
  • Figurative language
  • Oxymoron
  • Simile


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