Pair - pare - pear

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Pair, pare and pear are three homophones that have such different meanings that they are unlikely to be confused in hearing. Sometimes they cause difficulties in spelling. They are all pronounced IPA: /pɛə/, to rhyme with 'air', 'share' and 'hair'.

  • A pair is a set of two of anything felt to be matched: a 'pair of shoes', for example. People can walk out 'in pairs', or two by two; an old-fashioned cart might be drawn by 'a pair of horses'. For a note on some of the grammatical implications of pair, see Pair (grammar).
    • Pair can also be used as a verb, meaning something like 'to arrange into pairs'. Transitively, one can 'pair the socks' from a load of washing; intransitively, young people might 'pair off'. In the House of Commons, an MP with an appointment somewhere else during a debate characteristically pairs with one of her or his opponents: that is, the second member of the pair agrees to neutralise the absence of the first by not voting either.
  • The verb 'to pare' means to cut a thin piece off. In carving wood or stone, one can gradually pare away unwanted material; an old-fashioned quill pen must be pared regularly (trimmed); in cookery, one pares fruit and vegetables by peeling them, or removing the skin. (Nowadays, 'to peel' is the usual word, but shops for cookware still sell paring knives.) Figuratively, some students might be asked to pare away some of the superfluous words in their essays.
  • A pear is a fruit with a characteristic shape, being broader at the end away from the branch, sometimes nearly spherical, and narrower where it joins the branch. The name is usually applied in English to the fruit of a tree native to Europe and West Asia, the Pyrus communis or common pear-tree; but is sometimes used for other fruits of similar shape, such as the avocado pear (usually just 'avocado' nowadays) and the prickly pear, a type of cactus.
    • The slang expression pear-shaped has two meanings, which may or may not be connected. A pear-shaped woman is one with broad hips, who appears to taper upwards, like a pear.
    • 'To go pear-shaped' means 'to go wrong', particularly in a way felt to be humiliating or embarrassing to the speaker.

For another pair of homophones that have been confused with these three, see Peer - pier.