Imaginative vs. Imaginary – What’s the Difference?

Imaginary and imaginative are two English adjectives that are similar enough that some writers get them confused. They both stem from the root word imagine, which is a verb that means to envision things that may not be the case. They mean different things though, and the careful writer will know the correct situations in which to use each of these words.

If you were a film critic, and you meant to call a groundbreaking film imaginative, but, instead, you use imaginary, you would quickly lose credibility and leave yourself open to ridicule. Likewise, many children are imaginative, but almost none of them are imaginary.

What is the Difference Between Imaginative and Imaginary?

In this article, I will compare imaginative vs. imaginary. I will show you the words in context by using each in at least one example sentence. Plus, I will tell you an easy way to remember whether something is imaginative or imaginary.

When to Use Imaginative

Definition of imaginary definition and definition of imaginative definitionWhat does imaginative mean? The word imaginative is an adjective. When something is imaginative, it is creative or fanciful, like a science-fiction film or the stories told by children.

Thus, to be imaginative is to use one’s imagination.

I have included a few example sentences here,

  • The author’s new novel puts an imaginative spin on detective noir by changing the setting to the Jazz Age.
  • “He will grow up to be an imaginative artist someday!” said the child’s art teacher.
  • Sandra made an imaginative film about extraterrestrials becoming embroiled in a high-stakes tween drama.
  • The Kronos Quartet is at it again, committing acts of imaginative generosity in support of creativity. –The Washington Post

When to Use Imaginary

Define imaginary and define imaginativeWhat does imaginary mean? Imaginary is another adjective. Something that is imaginary is not real, like an imaginary friend or an imaginary kingdom.

As a result, to be imaginary is to be a product of the imagination.

Here are a few examples,

  • Stella accused her classmate Erin of stealing her imaginary boyfriend away from her.
  • Peabody was shocked when her entire class seemed to come down with the same imaginary disease.
  • Kellen amused her friends by playing an imaginary guitar through an imaginary amp.
  • Nearby, in five flash-animation videos on small flat-screens, animals both real and imaginary — deer, fish, unicorn — likewise cavort through similarly gestural fields. –LA Times

Trick to Remember the Difference

imaginative versus imaginaryNow, let’s take a look at how we can remember imaginary vs. imaginative.

These words are similar, but they mean different things. Critics may disagree whether a film is imaginative, but none who have seen it would call it imaginary. To be imaginary is to not exist in the real world.

Since imaginary things don’t exist, you can remember that the word imaginary rhymes with fairy, a creature that does not exist. This way you will always be able to remember the meaning of this confusing word.


Is it imaginary or imaginative? Imaginary and imaginative are adjectives.

  • Imaginary describes something that does not exist.
  • Imaginative is a synonym for creative and fanciful.

Imaginative people use their imaginations; imaginary people are products of the imaginations of others.

Fairies are imaginary beings. By rhyming fairy with imaginary, you will always be able to remember the meaning of the word imaginary.

These words are confusing, but now that you’ve taken the time to learn about them, you will never mix them up again. Be sure to check this site next time you discover another set of confusing words.