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When I attach a scan of a document to an email, and say, 'Please find attached a [scan|copy] of my passport,' should I use 'scan' or 'copy'?

I also saw here that 'scanned copy' is also an option, but I think that is too much for a quick email, and is merely qualifying the type of copy it is (as opposed to a 'drawn copy' or a 'computer-generated copy,' let's say.

For me, 'scan' seems accurate as it's a noun, and says exactly what it is. But 'scan' (as a noun) also feels like it refers to the instance of the action of scanning when the scan was first done (exactly as just used in this very sentence).

A 'copy' feels more generic, hence the qualifying phrase above 'scanned copy'. But I see 'copy' used quite ubiquitously for things like this. But it also seems more correct with respect to 'scanned copy' as it is subjectively the same but without the qualifying 'scanned' part - it is expected that the reader would know it is scanned.

Would welcome any thoughts on this.

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  • 'scan' seems accurate as it's a noun. When did that happen ? I didn't get the memo, I'm still using it as a verb. – High Performance Mark Jan 20 '20 at 16:14
  • @HighPerformanceMark It's both. The OED has citations from 1953 (albeit mainly in a medical context). – TripeHound Jan 20 '20 at 16:18
  • @HighPerformanceMark Like many if not most verbs, it's also a noun. "I will scan this document." -> "I will perform a scan of this document." "I will run." -> "I will go for a run." Maybe no one did a scan of the memo for you. ;) – Neo Jan 21 '20 at 13:18
  • It should ideally be 'scanned copy'. – Ram Pillai Jan 21 '20 at 14:51
  • @RamPillai Why? – Neo Jan 22 '20 at 21:58
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All three examples: scan, scanned copy or copy could legitimately be used in the situation you describe (listed in my likely order of preference, assuming nothing else to influence my decision). Note: if I was sending a physical letter, with a photocopy or similar of a document, then I would favour "copy".

From the OED:

scan, n
3. An image, diagram, etc., obtained by scanning

Source: OED, "scan"

and:

copy, n
II. A transcript or reproduction of an original.
2. A writing transcribed from, and reproducing the contents of, another; a transcript.
3. A picture, or other work of art, reproducing the features of another.

Source: OED, "copy"

(The OED doesn't directly acknowledge the existence of electronic scanners or photocopiers in either entry, but the sense should be clear).

My (slight) preference for "scan" over "copy" is probably as much due to my age as etymology; coming as I do from a time when "copy" almost exclusively meant physical copy, and only later did such things as electronic copies exist. With that history, "scan" emphasizes the electronic, somewhat intangible nature of an attachment.

For people who have probably never seen an actual, dedicated photocopier this distinction between physical copy and electronic scan is likely to diminish and, perhaps, disappear. (For them, making a (photo)copy means printing the file that has been scanned!)

For me, 'scan' seems accurate as it's a noun, and says exactly what it is. But 'scan' also feels like it refers to the instance of the action of scanning...

You are quite correct: scan can be both a noun (the thing produced by the act of scanning) and a verb (the act of scanning, that produces a scan). Exactly the same applies to "copy". However, that the same word can be used as a verb does not invalidate it when it is being used (correctly) as a noun.

As far as "scanned copy" is concerned: I personally don't feel it is "too much for a quick email" (but, again, that is probably partly due to my age and a tendency for more formality, even in emails). However, I'd probably only use it if I'm directly contrasting a scanned attachment with a separate physical copy. For example, there are occasions where you may need to send a physical copy of a document by post, but can expedite processing by emailing an electronic copy. In such a case, I might well say:

Please find attached a scanned copy of Form XYZZY; a copy of the original will follow by post.

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  • I think I'm in the same boat as you as regards age (I'm 41), hence this question, because I too remember digital scans ('digitising' back in the day!) were specifically stated to clarify it was done by an electronic scan and not a photocopy. But I'm trying to not be influenced by this historical understanding and embrace the modern usage of the words 'scan' and 'copy'. But your OED reference pretty much answers the question, so thanks for that. And, to clarify, by 'instance of the action of scanning', I meant as a noun, not a verb. I've edited the question accordingly to make that bit clearer. – Neo Jan 21 '20 at 13:28

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