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I've looked up the words in a bunch of dictionaries and each one says something different. As I understand they're a kind of synonyms.

  1. I scanned the article for his name. - meaning, I read it quickly to find a his name?
  2. I scanned the article - meaning, there's no information about what I looked for but still I looked for something particular such as a name, not just I read it quickly ?
  3. I skimmed the the article - meaning, I just read it quickly?
  4. I skimmed the article to find his name - The structure of the sentence (mainly the prepositional phrase) comes into play and now it means the same as the first example?

Am I wrong? They're just synonyms?

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I think a big factor here is the development of scanning technology, along with the specialization of that word ("scan") to refer more and more to actions using that sort of technology. Computer scanning is (ideally) completely thorough, so it's possible that the sentiment of cursory-ness previously held by "scan" is increasingly diminished thereby. FWIW, out of your examples, I find only #1 and #3 to be natural. –  Tyler James Young Aug 14 '13 at 14:35

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

In many cases, the meaning will be indistinguishable, but there might also be subtle differences in the intention or the interpretation, revolving around associations with the act of either "scanning" or "skimming".

  1. I scanned the article for his name.

implies that I looked across the lines of text using a scanning, sweeping method with the sole aim of locating a reference to his name, rather than interpreting any of the information in the article.

  1. I scanned the article.

implies that I glanced through the entire article using a scanning, sweeping method, reading across the lines of text. The aim is not specified, but you can assume that I was looking for important information within the article without reading it fully. I might also be implying that I read it all very quickly, and therefore not thoroughly. I might also be implying that I read it very efficiently, like a scanning machine.

  1. I skimmed the the article.

implies that I glanced through the entire article using a skimming, superficial method, like skimming a stone across water. The aim is not specified, but you can assume that I was looking for interesting information within the article without bothering to read it fully, or not in a regimental fashion. I might be implying that I skipped over large parts of the article, and therefore might have missed some detail.

  1. I skimmed the article to find his name.

implies that I looked across the lines of text using a skimming, superficial method with the sole aim of locating a reference to his name, rather than interpreting any of the information in the article.

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Originally to scan meant to examine something closely. When reading a text you scanned it carefully in order to find the relevant information you were searching for. A much different task from skimming a text in order to get the gist of its topic or subject matter. The original meaning is still used today but it is becoming rarer, as scan and skim have almost become synonymous with one another. In fact, many native speakers are unaware of any significant differences between the two words.

Cambridge ESOL has seen fit to post a PDF document explaining the difference between to scan and to skim. (Emphasis mine.)

Skimming and scanning are two different reading skills. Skimming means looking at a text or chapter quickly in order to have a general idea of the contents. Scanning means looking at a text to find some particular information. For example, we skim through a report to have a rough idea of what it says but we scan a page of the telephone directory to find a particular name or number. Skimming requires a greater degree of reading and word recognition skills as it involves a more thorough understanding of the text. Scanning to find a particular piece of information can be achieved successfully by relatively poor readers and is therefore a very satisfying achievement for those daunted by texts in a foreign language.

From Online Etymology Dictionary
To scan

late 14c., "mark off verse in metric feet," from Late Latin scandere "to scan verse," originally, in classical Latin, "to climb" (the connecting notion is of the rising and falling rhythm of poetry), from PIE *skand- "to spring, leap" (cf. Sanskrit skandati "hastens, leaps, jumps;" Greek skandalon "stumbling block;" Middle Irish sescaind "he sprang, jumped," sceinm "a bound, jump"). Missing -d in English is probably from confusion with suffix -ed (see lawn (n.1)). Sense of "look at closely, examine" first recorded 1540s. The (opposite) sense of "look over quickly, skim" is first attested 1926. The noun is recorded from 1706.

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Depending on your context and meaning, they can be used to the same effect. Scanning can implies a systemic examination, looking for a pattern and/or some interpretation of content: "The script scans forums for email addresses." Skimming implies minimal effort; to skim means to glide over a surface, for example: "The bug skimmed across the pond."

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/scanning http://www.thefreedictionary.com/skimming

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