Shear and Sheer

Sheer and shear have very different definitions

shear and sheer
It's sheer foolishness to shear sheep in early winter. (Anne Petitfils/Getty Images)

The words shear and sheer are homophones: they sound alike but have different meanings.

The verb shear means to cut or clip. As a noun, shear refers to the act, process, or fact of cutting or clipping.

The verb sheer means to turn suddenly or deviate from a course. As an adjective, sheer means fine or transparent, pure or complete. The adjective sheer also means very steep, almost straight up and down.

As an adverb, sheer means completely or altogether.

Examples of Sheer and Shear in Literature

  • "[T]he grass had grown so rank it was like trying to shear a sheep with nose-hair clippers."
    (Kristin Kimball, The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love. Scribner, 2010)
     
  • "The ability for any ship to sheer away from a danger is limited at best and would take time to achieve without any guarantee of success."
    (David House, Marine Emergencies: For Masters and Mates. Routledge, 2014)
  • Jerry wore a sheer linen shirt with frilly lace cuffs.
     
  • "English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education--sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street."
    (E.B. White)
     
  • "The lights along the sheer cliffs of Mount Washington, high above the river,  were already lighted. When Albert was a boy, those cliffs, with the row of lights far up against the sky, made him think of some far-away, cloud-set city in Asia; the forbidden city, he sued to call it."
    (Willa Cather, "Double Birthday." The Forum, 1929)

     

    Practice Exercises for Sheer and Shear

    (a) “From the first day to this, _____ greed has been the driving spirit of civilization.”
    (Friedrich Engels)

    (b) "He used scissors to _____ his hair very short, almost to the scalp."
    (Brian Latell, After Fidel. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

    (c) "They had only lagged behind the others for a couple of minutes, but they took a wrong turning, and presently found themselves pulled up short by the edge of an old chalk quarry.

     It was a _____ drop of ten or twenty meters, with boulders at the bottom."
    (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)

    Answers to Practice Exercises: Shear and Sheer

    (a) “From the first day to this, sheer greed has been the driving spirit of civilization.” (Friedrich Engels)

    (b) "He used scissors to shear his hair very short, almost to the scalp."
    (Brian Latell, After Fidel. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

    (c) "They had only lagged behind the others for a couple of minutes, but they took a wrong turning, and presently found themselves pulled up short by the edge of an old chalk quarry. It was a sheer drop of ten or twenty meters, with boulders at the bottom."
    (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949).