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Some words seem to have opposite meanings in different contexts.

For example, scan, have both the meanings of look carefully and look carelessly?

How to identify that?

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You just have to look at the context.

Scan can have the former meaning, to look carefully, as in:

The detective scanned the scene for clues.

Or it can take your second meaning to look carelessly, as in:

I scanned the magazine, but didn't find anything interesting.

There are times when the precise meaning might be ambiguous. Consider:

The detective scanned the scene, but didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

Did he do a careful scan, or a superficial scan? It's impossible to say without additional context.

The key is that scan really just means "to look over," and thus scanning can be done thoroughly, carefully, superficially, or in any number of other ways.

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    It's surprising how often "You just have to look at the context." is the right answer. – snailplane Jun 26 '13 at 1:35
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    @snailboat: I suspect that typically when that's the case, it's because someone is looking for meaning in a word that's not there. As in this example; scan is a general verb, such as to look, and doesn't indicate what the OP is asking--except in very specific contexts, where the meaning is otherwise unambiguous. – Flimzy Jun 26 '13 at 1:37

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