Imagery (Language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

image of plums
Mental imagery is produced in the mind by language. Verbal imagery is the language itself. (Rolf Georg Brenner/Getty Images)

Imagery is vivid descriptive language that appeals to one or more of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste).

Occasionally the term imagery is also used to refer to figurative language, in particular metaphors and similes.

According to Gerard A. Hauser, we use imagery in speech and writing "not only to beautify but also to create relationships that give new meaning" (Introduction to Rhetorical Theory, 2002).

See Examples and Observations below.

Etymology

From the Latin, "image"

Why Do We Use Imagery?

"There are a lot of reasons why we use imagery in our writing. Sometimes the right image creates a mood we want. Sometimes an image can suggest connections between two things. Sometimes an image can make a transition smoother. We use images to show intention. (Her words were fired in a deadly monotone and she gunned down the three of us with her smile.) We use imagery to exaggerate. (His arrival in that old Ford always sounded like a six-car pileup on the Harbor Freeway.) Sometimes we don't know why we're using imagery; it just feels right. But the two main reasons we use imagery are:

  1. To save time and words.
  2. To reach the reader's senses."

(Gary Provost, Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing. Writer's Digest Books, 1988)

Examples of Different Types of Imagery

  • Visual (Sight) Imagery
    "In our kitchen, he would bolt his orange juice (squeezed on one of those ribbed glass sombreros and then poured off through a strainer) and grab a bite of toast (the toaster a simple tin box, a kind of little hut with slit and slanted sides, that rested over a gas burner and browned one side of the bread, in stripes, at a time), and then he would dash, so hurriedly that his necktie flew back over his shoulder, down through our yard, past the grapevines hung with buzzing Japanese-beetle traps, to the yellow brick building, with its tall smokestack and wide playing fields, where he taught."
    (John Updike, "My Father on the Verge of Disgrace" in Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, 2000)
  • Auditory (Sound) Imagery
    "The only thing that was wrong now, really, was the sound of the place, an unfamiliar nervous sound of the outboard motors. This was the note that jarred, the one thing that would sometimes break the illusion and set the years moving. In those other summertimes all motors were inboard; and when they were at a little distance, the noise they made was a sedative, an ingredient of summer sleep. They were one-cylinder and two-cylinder engines, and some were make-and-break and some were jump-spark, but they all made a sleepy sound across the lake. The one-lungers throbbed and fluttered, and the twin-cylinder ones purred and purred, and that was a quiet sound, too. But now the campers all had outboards. In the daytime, in the hot mornings, these motors made a petulant, irritable sound; at night, in the still evening when the afterglow lit the water, they whined about one's ears like mosquitoes."
    (E.B. White, "Once More to the Lake," 1941)
  • Tactile (Touch) Imagery
    "When the others went swimming my son said he was going in, too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.
    (E.B. White, "Once More to the Lake," 1941)
  • Olfactory (Smell) Imagery
    "I lay still and took another minute to smell: I smelled the warm, sweet, all-pervasive smell of silage, as well as the sour dirty laundry spilling over the basket in the hall. I could pick out the acrid smell of Claire’s drenched diaper, her sweaty feet, and her hair crusted with sand. The heat compounded the smells, doubled the fragrance. Howard always smelled and through the house his scent seemed always to be warm. His was a musky smell, as if the source of a muddy river, the Nile or the Mississippi, began right in his armpits. I had grown used to thinking of his smell as the fresh man smell of hard work. Too long without washing and I tenderly beat his knotty arms with my fists. That morning there was alfalfa on his pillow and cow manure embedded in his tennis shoes and the cuffs of his coveralls that lay by the bed. Those were sweet reminders of him. He had gone out as one shaft of searing light came through the window. He had put on clean clothes to milk the cows."
    (Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World. Random House, 1994)

    Observations

    • "The artist's life nourishes itself on the particular, the concrete. . . . Start with the mat-green fungus in the pine woods yesterday: words about it, describing it, and a poem will come. . . . Write about the cow, Mrs. Spaulding's heavy eyelids, the smell of vanilla flavouring in a brown bottle. That's where the magic mountains begin."
      (Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen Kukil. Anchor, 2000)
    • "Follow your image as far as you can no matter how useless you think it is. Push Yourself. Always ask, 'What else can I do with this image?' . . . Words are illustrations of thoughts. You must think this way."
      (Nikki Giovanni, quoted by Bill Strickland in On Being a Writer, 1992)

    Pronunciation

    IM-ij-ree