In an answer to another question this sentence was proposed:

Was it specifically mentioned as part of their teaching, or they just happened not to have killed anyone?

In comment, another user wrote:

That doesn’t scan in English. Sorry.

What does scan mean in this context? I've searched the online dictionaries I normally consult (NOAD, M-W, Dictionary.com, TheFreeDictionary.com, Oxford Dictionaries Online, Cambridge Dictionaries Online), but cannot find a meaning other than "(of verse) conform to metrical principles" (NOAD).

3 Answers 3


It's a figurative extension of scansion. It just means that the words don't flow naturally in English.

  • 3
    Interesting. Left to my own devices, I probably would've intepreted it as a neologism inspired by barcode readers.
    – J.R.
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 14:28
  • 6
    @J.R.: It's a term musicians have used for decades at least, referring to how words fit together with music. And poets for longer than that.
    – Robusto
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 14:46
  • 7
    This is the right answer.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 15:33
  • Given that @tchrist was the original commenter and has confirmed it here, this is obviously the correct answer. Would scan be used in this sense in "formal" writing, or is it more of an informal thing?
    – zpletan
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 17:14
  • @zpletan: I have seen it used in scholarly works about literature. That seems formal enough to me.
    – Robusto
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 17:50

Technically, "scan" is usually used as your dictionary suggests to mean "conform to metrical expectations/tradition".

But I don't think the person in question is using the word with any technical sense. What they really mean is "In some vague, unspecified way, I don't like the way this sentence sounds".

[If pressed, probably what is raising their objection is that the sentence sounds imbalanced as it has the inverted structure "Was it..." in the first part, but no inversion in the second. The reader half expects you to write "...or did they just happen..." to keep the balance.]


"To scan" in this sense is slang meaning "to make sense".

To say "that doesn't scan" is to say "that doesn't make sense".

  • 1
    Please cite a reputable reference.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 0:26

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