Many people might tell you that “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun, except that’s not always true. English is complicated like that and for all the convenience that it provides, automatic spellcheck isn’t really helping the situation. When you’ve got words that sound similar (or the same) like “pier” and “peer,” it’s easy to get them confused. And this can lead to many a spelling mistake.

So, let’s gain a little clarity by defining the terms.

On Piers and Peers

A pier most commonly refers to a structure wherein you have a platform supported by pillars, and this platform extends out into a body of water. Piers come in all sorts of sizes. You might have a really small pier at a local lake, perfect for launching your humble fishing boat. Or you might have the gigantic Pier 39 in San Francisco or the Steveston Pier in Richmond, BC.

In those cases, the pier could also refer to the shops, restaurants and attractions constituting the larger entertainment area. Depending on the specifics of the location (and whoever built it), the structure could also be called a quay (pronounced key), a wharf, a dock or a landing.

A peer, pronounced exactly the same way as pier, most commonly refers to someone who is equivalent to you in some way. This could be in regards to your geographic location, your social status, your age, your socioeconomic standing, or your education level, among a myriad of other possibilities.

This is what is meant by a “jury of one’s peers” in the context of a criminal court. The people who make up the jury should represent a reasonable cross-section of the population, accounting for race, gender, age, and so forth. You might also compare yourself with your peers online. When you keep up the Joneses, you’re comparing yourself to your neighbors, not to starving children in a developing country or to the ultra elite socialites of Beverly Hills.

But that’s not the only meaning of the word “peer.” It can also refer to a member of the British (or Irish) nobility, like a duke or baron. It can also be used as a verb, meaning to look keenly. As Harry scaled the wall and peered into the garden, he couldn’t believe what he saw.

What About Pear and Pare?

And while “pier” and “peer” rhyme with “beer,” pear and pare rhyme with “bear” (and “bare”). A “pear” is the edible fruit you can buy at the grocery store, whereas “pare” is a verb meaning to trim the outer edges of something. It can also mean, more generally, to reduce something in size or quantity. Bringing this all together, we might get a sentence like this:

After leaving the pier with his peers, Johnny peered through the bushes to see the gardener paring down the branches of the old pear tree.

Do you have a grammar question you’d like clarified? Is there a common spelling mistake that really ruffles your feathers? Let me know in the comment section below!