AbstractA recent letter [J. R. Carpenter and A. Guha, “Instability of a smooth shear layer through wave interactions,” Phys. Fluids 31, 081701 (2019)] compared the neutral modes of a smooth two-dimensional shear profile without an inflection point to the modes of its corresponding piecewise-linear profile. The regular mode in the smooth profile was identified as the one least sensitive to the numerical resolution, while the singular modes displayed high sensitivity. Here, we provide a physical interpretation using a wave interaction approach for understanding the structure and behavior of both the regular and singular modes. The regular modes are the interfacial Rossby waves located at the concentrated mean vorticity gradient of the shear profile. In contrast, the singular modes result from a one way phase-locking interaction between singular vorticity disturbances, passively advected by the mean flow at different levels of the profile, and the interfacial Rossby waves. We show that this one way interaction can also lead to a sustained non-modal growth of the interfacial Rossby waves that cannot be captured by standard eigenvalue analysis.