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Sheer or Shear: A Grammar Tip

by Lisa Angelettie

in Article Writing Tips, New Writers

Sheer or Shear?

This quick grammar tip came up because I was writing something for someone, and writing very quickly, and used the wrong one! Ugh! You may know what each of these means, but in case you have a brain freeze or are writing rather quickly — I want you to be crystal clear about when to use sheer or shear in your writing. Actually the two have similar origins but mean completely two different things.

SHEER 1
adjective [ attrib. ] nothing other than; unmitigated (used for emphasis) : she giggled with sheer delight | marriage is sheer hard work.2 (esp. of a cliff or wall) perpendicular or nearly so : the sheer ice walls.3 (of a fabric) very thin; diaphanous : sheer white silk chiffon.

adverb
1 perpendicularly : the ridge fell sheer, in steep crags.2 archaic completely; right : she went sheer forward when the door was open.

noun
a very fine or diaphanous fabric or article.

DERIVATIVES
sheerly | adverb  sheerness |

noun
ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense [exempt, cleared] ): probably an alteration of dialect shire [pure, clear,] from the Germanic base of the verb shine . In the mid 16th cent. the word was used to describe clear, pure water, and also in sense 3.

SHEER 2
verb [ intrans. ](typically of a boat or ship) swerve or change course quickly : the boat sheered off to beach further up the coast.• figurative avoid or move away from an unpleasant topic : her mind sheered away from images she didn’t want to dwell on.

noun
a sudden deviation from a course, esp. by a boat.

ORIGIN early 17th cent.: perhaps from Middle Low German scheren ‘to shear.’

USAGE
The two verbs sheer and shear have a similar origin but do not have identical meanings. Sheer, the less common verb, means ‘swerve or change course quickly’: : the boat sheers off the bank. Shear, on the other hand, usually means ‘cut the wool off (a sheep)’ and can also mean ‘break off (usually as a result of structural strain)’: : the pins broke and the wing part sheared off .

SHEER 3
noun
the upward slope of a ship’s lines toward the bow and stern.

ORIGIN late 17th cent.: probably from the noun shear .

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SHEAR

verb ( past part. shorn | sh ôrn|or sheared )1 [ trans. ] cut the wool off (a sheep or other animal).• cut off (something such as hair, wool, or grass), with scissors or shears : I’ll shear off all that fleece.• ( be shorn of) have something cut off : they were shorn of their hair | figurative the richest man in the U.S. was shorn of nearly $2 billion.2 break off or cause to break off, owing to a structural strain : [ intrans. ] the derailleur sheared and jammed in the rear wheel | [ trans. ] the left wing had been almost completely sheared off.

NOUN
a strain in the structure of a substance produced by pressure, when its layers are laterally shifted in relation to each other. See also wind shear .

DERIVATIVES
shearer   (noun)

ORIGIN
Old English sceran (originally in the sense [cut through with a weapon] ), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch and Germanscheren, from a base meaning ‘divide, shear, shave.’

USAGE
The two verbs shear and sheer are sometimes confused: see usage at sheer 2 .

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