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"Shear" and "sheer" are examples of homophones, words that sound alike but have different meanings. The first can be used as a noun or a verb, and the second can be used as a verb, adjective, or adverb.
How to Use "Shear"
As a verb, "shear" means to cut or to clip (as in "shear the hedges"). As a noun, the word refers to the act, process, or fact of cutting or clipping. The tool used to shear something is known as a pair of shears. In Britain, "shear" is sometimes used as a noun in reference to the process of shearing a sheep (as in "an old sheep that's had many shearings").
A less common meaning of "shear" is found in physics and materials science, where the word refers to the stress produced by certain forces that causes two layers in a substance to shift away from each other. In this context, scientists sometimes speak of "shear stress" and "shearing forces."
How to Use "Sheer"
The verb "sheer" means to turn suddenly or deviate from a course (as in "sheer away from oncoming traffic"). As an adjective, "sheer" means fine or transparent, pure or complete (as in "a sheer silk dress"). The adjective "sheer" can also mean very steep or almost straight up and down (as in "a sheer drop"). "Sheer" can also be used as an adverb, meaning completely or altogether.
Although "sheer" has several meanings, "shear"-whether it's used as a noun or a verb-almost always refers to cutting, clipping, or trimming:
- He had to shear the bushes often to keep his lawn looking neat.
- The farmer trimmed the animal's coat with shears.
"Sheer" is often used as an adjective, typically in reference to something that is see-through or very steep:
- His chest hair was clearly visible through his sheer T-shirt.
- A barrier along the cliff kept tourists away from the sheer drop.
"Sheer" can also be used as a synonym for "utter" or "complete":
- It was sheer luck that I happened to be there at the right time.
- The child watched the fireworks with a look of sheer amazement.
As a verb, "sheer" means to turn away from something:
- Ship captains use GPS technology to sheer away from obstacles.
- The plane sheered north to avoid the storm system in its path.
How to Remember the Difference
Like many homophones, "sheer" and "shear" are easy to mix up. The only difference between the two is the letter "A." "A" almost resembles an open pair of scissors, which is a good way to remember that "shear" almost always refers to cutting. If you're not talking about cutting something (and you're not a scientist), you probably mean to use the word "sheer" instead.
Shear vs. Shears
Historically, the singular word "shear" was used to refer to a variety of tools for cutting. In "The Canterbury Tales," for example, Chaucer describes the biblical Samson, who kept his hair long in accordance with the Nazarite vow: "This Samson never liquor drank, nor wine. / Nor on his head came razor, nor a shear." In modern English, the word is usually used in the plural form "shears," though the word "shear" is sometimes still used to refer to one blade of such a tool.
- Downing, Angela. "English Grammar: a University Course." Routledge, 2015.
- Straus, Jane. "The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: The Mysteries of Grammar and Punctuation Revealed." John Wiley & Sons, 2006.