What Does Scratch Paper Mean?

Has someone ever asked you for “scratch paper”? Did you, ahem, scratch your head over the term? Wonder if you were supposed to somehow scrape the paper—and if so, with what exactly—before you handed it to them?! The noun phrase does seem to suggest paper that has been somehow scraped or otherwise dug into. However, that’s not its intended meaning. Read on for the definition of and a common synonym (at least, to some people!) for scratch paper.

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What Does Scratch Paper Mean?

According to Merriam-Webster, scratch paper is defined as “paper that may be used for casual writing.” What does “casual writing” mean? Think of it as brainstorming; casual writing is the notes and ideas that you can and want to jot down quickly. The word writing in this context can also actually mean drawing, e.g., a fast sketch or doodle. In other words, you don’t use scratch paper for any formal writing or drawing, such as your big school report, the final draft of your novel, or architectural blueprints to present to your clients for their approval. You use scratch paper for quick notes and scribbles.

Although this definition doesn’t clearly convey any specifics about the paper itself that’s used for the act of casual writing, because of decades and decades of use, the term often carries inherent meaning in this regard to many people. When someone uses the noun phrase, they might be specifically asking for some kind of cheap paper or any piece of paper with some blank surface, even if it has already been used—say, the back of an envelope or a piece of notebook or printer paper that has already been used on one side but can be reused on the other. They could even just need a small piece of paper to write on, whether that’s a ripped off piece of a larger page or a page from a pad of Post-it Notes or another tiny paper pad. Most likely, the paper would be loose, even if taken out of a notepad or notebook; if someone is asking for scratch paper, they typically aren’t looking to be handed an entire notebook. That said, notepads can be thought of as scratch paper, as they’re likely to be used for casual writing and note-taking and less likely to be kept for a lengthy period of time as a notebook might. They’re often marketed as scratch pads; for doodles, they’re marketed as sketch pads.

As just alluded to above, the connotation with scratch paper is that because the writing on it is just notes, or just a draft, the paper ultimately won’t be kept, so the type of paper doesn’t matter. The words or sketches will eventually get transferred to a full, clean sheet of paper, maybe even very high-quality paper, or to the computer, etc. Or, perhaps whatever is being recorded only needs to exist for a bit of time and then can be tossed.

Here are some example sentences using the term scratch paper:

  • We forgot to get a scorecard from the counter before we started our miniature golf game, so I used the back of a bill I had in my purse as scratch paper to keep track. 
  • I always have pieces of scratch paper available while working on my math worksheets. That way, I can figure out how to solve a problem without my teacher seeing my mistakes. 
  • I print out the crossword puzzle from the newspaper every day and then save it once I’m done; the backs make great scratch paper for grocery lists or quick notes to my husband or kids about the events of the day.
  • As an inventor, my brother is always sketching and doodling. There are pieces of scratch paper with random, silly ideas and with the beginnings of great inventions all over the house. 

Synonyms for Scratch Paper

Most people consider the term scrap paper a synonym for scratch paper—but interestingly, not all do! Some argue that the terms in fact have different meanings, stemming from the definitions of scratch and scrap. Scratch can, aptly, mean “to write or draw on a surface,” or “scribble or scrawl.” Scrap can mean “a small detached piece,” “a fragment,” or “rejected parts discarded and useful only as material for reprocessing or repurposing.”

With these definitions in mind, some linguists feel scratch paper is simply paper you use for quick notes; as mentioned above, the paper itself can technically be any kind of paper. Scrap paper, on the other hand they say, refers specifically to small bits of paper or waste paper—paper ready to be thrown out and discarded, but that can be reused in some way, whether that’s for taking notes or making a collage, as another example. In other words, scratch paper deals more with the message (casual writing), while scrap paper deals more with the medium (the type of paper, being a fragment or other piece of discarded paper). It’s all semantics. Ultimately, it’s up to you if you use them interchangeably, and which term you prefer. As you’ll notice in the example sentences above, scrap paper could certainly be used in place of scratch paper.

In British English, you’re less likely to hear these terms and more likely to hear another synonym: scribbling paper or scribble paper, or even scribbling block or scribbling pad for scratch pads, or notepads and not loose paper.

Although different sources put the exact first known use of scratch paper at different times, there appears to be a consensus that the term dates to some point in the 1800s. It’s possible that the term scrap paper was in use before scratch paper. Some language experts posit scratch paper may even be an eggcorn, or a word or phrase that is the result of mishearing another word or phrase. At some point, someone may have misheard scrap as scratch, and then the phrase scratch paper stuck. In this case, it happens that the possibly misheard version makes good sense, given one definition of scratch.

Summary

The noun phrase scratch paper (a noun phrase is a group of words that functions as a noun) is defined as “paper that may be used for casual writing.” In other words, paper used for quick notes and even for sketches and doodles. Technically, the paper can be any kind of paper, though often the connotation is cheap or just any old paper, including paper repurposed from a previous use (such as a document that is no longer needed and has a blank side left). You can use scrap paper as a synonym for scratch paper, and most people do, though some argue that the two terms aren’t exactly the same, since scratch paper can refer to any kind of paper while scrap paper more clearly implies waste paper that gets reused.