Shear vs. Sheer: What’s The Difference?

The English language has many confusing rules and regulations. Sometimes words with variant spellings are interchangeable, and sometimes they are completely different words. Homophones are words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spelling. This means that if you heard either word, you would not be able to tell the difference unless you paid attention to the context it was used in. This leads to a lot of confused words — thankfully, we are here to help. 

Let’s take a look at a pair of homophones in English, shear, and sheer.

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Definition of Sheer

A good place to start when differentiating our word of the day is to look at the definition. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word sheer means, “of very thin or transparent texture” or “unqualified or obsolete.” Another definition is, “being free from an adulterant, marked by great and continuous steepness”. Sheer can be a verb, noun, adverb, and adjective.

History and Origin of the Word

Another way to understand a word is by looking into where it came from. Language evolves with culture, so words change in meaning over time. According to the etymology of sheer, it was first used in 1200 meaning “exempt, free from guilt.” In the 1400s it went on to mean, “thin or sparse”. It is from the Old English word scir meaning “translucent, pure or unmixed.” 

In the 1580s it developed the meaning of “absolute or utter”. 

Synonym of Sheer

One of the best ways to really cement a word into your memory is to learn its synonyms; words with similar meanings make it easy to remember how to properly use a word.  Here are some basic synonyms for sheer.

  • Utter: complete; absolute.
  • Complete: having all the necessary or appropriate parts.
  • Consummate: showing a high degree of skill and flair; complete or perfect.
  • Downright:(of something bad or unpleasant) utter; complete (used for emphasis).

Examples of the Word in Context

Another good way to learn a word and apply it to your vocabulary is to hear it used properly.  Reading it or hearing a word used in its correct context is a great way to learn how to use it yourself.  Here are some common examples of the word sheer in context: 

  • We had to buy shades for the windows because the curtains were sheer silk. 
  • She giggled with sheer delight and skipped all the way home that day.
  • He only won due to sheer luck. 
  • The sheer cliff had a sheer drop off that could easily become dangerous. 
  • He got the promotion thanks to sheer hard work. 
  • What he said about me is sheer nonsense. 

Definition of Shear

To gain a better understanding of how the word shear is different from sheer, we can look at what it means. The verb shear is defined as “to cut off the hair from” or “to cut with something sharp”. This word can be used as a verb and a noun depending on the context.

History and Origin of the Word

Oftentimes the etymology of a word can tell us a lot about the word’s origin and why it exists today. According to the word shear in its verb form is from the Old English sceran, scieran which meant “to cleave, hew, cut with a sharp instrument.  It is also from Proto-Germanic *skero “to cut”. 

As a noun, it meant the “act of clipping,” in the 1610s, also as a unit of measure of the age of a sheep. The scientific and mechanical sense “type of strain” is from 1850.

Synonym for Shear

As mentioned previously, one of the best ways to secure a word into your memory is to learn its synonyms; words with similar meanings make it easy to remember how to properly use a word.  Here are some basic synonyms for shear.

  • Shave: cut (a thin slice or slices) from the surface of something.
  • Prune: trim (a tree, shrub, or bush) by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, especially to increase fruitfulness and growth.
  • Trim: make (something) neat or of the required size or form by cutting away irregular or unwanted parts.
  • Groom: brush and clean the coat of (a horse, dog, or other animals).

Examples of the Word in Context

Lastly, it may be helpful to look at some examples of the word shear used in a sentence so you are more comfortable with its meaning and usage. 

  • Billy was unfamiliar with the process of shearing a sheep with a pair of scissors.
  • Please hand me the shears so that I can cut his hair.
  • The shear force of the impact caused structural strain and deformation on the building.
  • We had to swerve the car or else we would have sheared the mailbox. 
  • Please shear the chiffon fabric with a pair of scissors.

In Summary

Words that are pronounced the same are the easiest to confuse with each other. This is because conversationally, you’d never know the difference. But, for reading and writing, it is imperative to understand the two different words and when to use them. 

Learning English words is always a struggle because it borrows from so many other languages that it ends up being a melting pot of words. 

This is not a regional difference in spellings like a lot of other English words. Both of these words have specific usages and are not able to be switched like with words such as labor/labour. The rules of English can be quite deceptive.

Both words shear and sheer have the same origin and sound the same but have entirely different meanings. They are commonly confused with each other and used the wrong way in writing. Just remember, when you clip hair you shear it and when you buy curtains that are see through they are sheer.

Next time you come across either word, hopefully you feel more prepared to correctly use it.