What is the exact difference between read, scan, and skim? Is the difference related to the concentration on the text, or is there anything else?

The answer is really important for me, since I often see these words in the texts I read.

  • The question is not really about English but about reading techniques. There's a Brain power proposal under commitment in Area 21 and it should deal with that question once it's on its way. In the meantime you could search the web because there are lots of stuff available about reading techniques, here or here or here etc. – None Dec 1 '11 at 17:18
  • @Laure: read is only a part of OP's question. So, it isn't necessarily limited to reading techniques alone, I suppose. – Kris Dec 2 '11 at 12:52
  • @Kris: Reading is a general term that encompasses scanning and skimming. Scanning and skimming are reading techniques that can be acquired by anyone who can read, in any language, through specifically designed exercises. – None Dec 2 '11 at 13:26
  • Reading is manually reading the numbers off the card, as for an Internet or phone transaction.

  • Scanning is passing the card through a magnetic strip scanner to digitally read the card information.

  • Skimming is illicitly scanning a card for the purpose of fraud or theft.

For what it's worth this was written "tongue-in-cheek."

Incidentally, the terminology does fit.

| improve this answer | |
  • -1, see skim; also for looking at meaning in context of a card where OP asks about texts. – Unreason Dec 1 '11 at 16:07
  • @Unreason This was a attempt at humor. I've been told I need to work on that. :-) – Mr.Wizard Dec 1 '11 at 16:34
  • I thought "Reading" was a railroad in Monopoly. – Jay Dec 1 '11 at 16:50
  • @Jay figure out how to tie "Scan" and "Skim" into Monopoly and you've got my vote. – Mr.Wizard Dec 1 '11 at 16:55
  • @Mr.Wizard Ah, my bad. Will reverse when able. – Unreason Dec 1 '11 at 17:26

In the context of a book, skimming is a technique used to quickly absorb the highest level of abstraction of the content of the book, for instance by browsing the content, chapter titles, summaries, etc. Little or none of the detail of the book will be gained during skimming.

Scanning is to search for a particular word, phrase, diagram or other piece of information of interest within a book, possibly by using the index or table of contents (or alternatively, using a search for keywords if the content is electronic).

One would use reading in order to absorb the total content and meaning of the book, usually by reading the content from start to finish, in a linear fashion, without skipping anything.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I think "skimming" is usually understood to mean going through the text picking out essentially random words to try to get the general idea without reading every word. That is, not reading just the contents and chapter titles, reading actual body text, just not all of it. – Jay Dec 1 '11 at 16:48
  • 2
    I don't think most people would refer to looking something up in an index as "scanning". The word is normally used to mean going through the actual text. Sometimes this means looking for a particular piece of information, as in "I scanned the book for information on Ruritania". Sometimes it is used more generally just to look for important points, as in "I scanned the book to see what it was about." In the latter sense, "scanning" and "skimming" are pretty much the same thing. – Jay Dec 1 '11 at 16:50
  • 2
    -1: I think in practice that supposed distinction between skimming and scanning is unlikely to be made by many people. – FumbleFingers Dec 1 '11 at 17:57
  • I beg to disagree - skimming and scanning have reasonably consistent meanings within educational circles - google.com/search?q=difference+skimming+and+scanning. @Jay, agreed, there wouldn't be an index in most Jane Austen novels, but if I was searching for references to Unobtanium in a physics textbook, my first stop would be the ToC or index to save time :) – StuartLC Dec 2 '11 at 12:17
  • @nonnb: Well, I don't want to get into an argument, so I'll leave it at this: Yes, if you want to find a particular piece of information in a book that has an index, it is certainly a good idea to check the index before searching through the book page by page. But I wouldn't call that "scanning". Just because something is a good idea doesn't mean that every word related to that activity means that! Like, "drowning" doesn't mean "expertly using the arms and legs to propel one's self through the water", even though such an activity is preferable to sinking to the bottom! – Jay Dec 7 '11 at 21:05

OP doesn't give any context, so - lighthearted or not - @Mr.Wizard's answer at least sets out how these three words have fairly distinct and well-understood meanings in the context of various "security" cards (credit cards, library cards, etc.).

In the context of books and other "volume" text, the verb to read is a generic term, which can mean anything from a brief glance to exhaustive textual analysis.

For most practical purposes, skimming and scanning are synonymous in reference to a book, for example. They just mean "reading" the text rapidly and superficially - often skipping words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, or even whole chapters to gain a quick overview.

Note that there's also the possibility of scanning a book into electronic format using electronic hardware, perhaps OCR (optical character reader/recognition) software to convert the scanned image into searchable text.

Thanks to @onomatomaniak for pointing out below that in some contexts, scan could be used to mean rapidly "sight search" a body of text looking for some particular term of interest. Such an activity has little connection to "reading" as such - you might well absorb no information at all, apart from establishing whether your "search term" is actually present.

| improve this answer | |
  • You probably mean OP does not give any context. – Kris Dec 2 '11 at 12:50
  • 1
    I generally agree when it comes to daily usage. I know I'd say, though, "I scanned the text for references to X." I can't decide if I'd substitute skimmed there. Would you? – user13141 Dec 2 '11 at 15:35
  • 1
    @onomatomaniak: I think you're right. Scanning in that sense isn't really the same thing as reading, since you'd be making no effort to actually interpret and absorb information - you're effectively just searching for a text pattern. I'll edit to reflect that. – FumbleFingers Dec 2 '11 at 15:42

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.