An approach to mass and liquid sensitivity for both the phase velocity and insertion loss of shear mode acoustic wave sensors based on the dispersion equations for layered systems is outlined. The approach is sufficiently general to allow for viscoelastic guiding layers. An equation for the phase velocity and insertion loss sensitivities is given which depends on the slope of the complex phase velocity dispersion curves. This equation contains the equivalent of the Sauerbrey and Kanazawa equations for loading of a quartz crystal microbalance by rigid mass and Newtonian liquids, respectively, and also describes surface loading by viscoelastic layers. The theoretical approach can be applied to a four-layer system, with any of the four layers being viscoelastic, so that mass deposition from a liquid can also be modelled. The theoretical dispersion equation based approach to layer-guided shear horizontal acoustic wave modes on finite substrates presented in this work provides a unified view of Love wave and shear horizontal acoustic plate mode (SH-APM) devices, which have been generally regarded as distinct in sensor research. It is argued that SH-APMs with guiding layers possessing shear acoustic speeds lower than that of the substrate and Love waves are two branches of solution of the same dispersion equation. The layer guided SH-APMs have a phase velocity higher than that of the substrate and the Love waves a phase velocity lower than that of the substrate. Higher-order Love wave modes are continuations of the layer-guided SH-APMs. The generalized concept of SH-APMs and Love waves provides a basis for understanding the change in sensitivity with higher-frequency operation and the relationship between multiple modes in Love wave sensors. It also explains why a relatively thick layer of a high-loss polymer can be used as a waveguide layer and so extends the range of materials that can be considered experimentally. Moreover, it is predicted that a new type of sensor, a layer-guided SH-APM sensor, can be constructed in a manner analogous to a Love wave device. The sensitivity of such a device is predicted to approach that of a Love wave sensor whilst retaining the advantage of the SH-APM of using the face opposite the one possessing the transducers as the sensing surface.