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Effects of the baroclinic torque on wave propagation normally neglected under the Boussinesq approximation is investigated here, with a special focus on the associated consequences for the mechanistic interpretation of shear instability arising from the interaction between a pair of vorticity-propagating waves. To illustrate and elucidate the physical effects that modify wave propagation, we consider three examples of increasing complexity: wave propagation supported by a uniform background flow; wave propagation supported on a piecewise-linear basic state possessing one jump; and an instability problem of a piecewise-linear basic state possessing two jumps, which supports the possibility of shear instability. We find that the non-Boussinesq effects introduce a preference for the direction of wave propagation that depends on the sign of the shear in the region where waves are supported. This in turn affects phase-locking of waves that is crucial for the mechanistic interpretation for shear instability, and is seen here to have an inherent tendency for stabilisation.