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shameless pleading

Home in / Hone in

For an extra $500, I join Facebook and defriend them.

Dear Word Detective: Which is correct: to “home in on” something or “to hone in on” something?  Are they interchangeable?  I don’t think so, but which is correct? — Bill Wagner.

Oh, correct, shmorrect.  Whatever floats your boat, I say.  It’s a lovely day and I have cats to herd.  If you’re really worried about being “correct,” you can always pony up for my Post Facto Usage Insurance (PFUI).  PFUI won’t stop you from making what others might consider grammar or usage “mistakes,” but for five bucks a month, I promise to track down anyone who criticizes how you use words and tie their shoelaces together.  Wedgies are ten bucks extra.

It’s a hoary cliche (a hoary cliche in itself, of course) that language changes, but most often the change happens so slowly that the new form or usage is dominant before most of us notice.  Often it’s only decades or even centuries later that the language cops raise a hue and cry over a “degradation of the language,” frequently blissfully unaware that said “degradation” was pioneered by an illiterate boob named William Shakespeare.  In the case of “home in on” and “hone in on,” the change is happening right now, and, thanks to the ubiquitous printed media, we can watch both forms duking it out in real time.

The “more proper,” traditional, and original form of the idiom is “to home in on,” meaning to adjust one’s trajectory, whether literal or metaphorical, so as to set an accurate course for a target or goal (“A good officer could even ‘home in on a bottle of whisky’ placed on the landing field,” 1956).  The verb “to home” in this sense comes from the behavior of homing pigeons, and was first used by aviators in the 1920s, who “homed on” the crude radio navigation beacons of the day.  “Home in on” was popularized during World War II, and after the war it came into wide use in the figurative sense of “identify an important issue, problem or solution, etc.”  (“Mexico’s Professor S. F. Beltran homed in on education as a critical need,” New Scientist, 1971).

The use of “to hone in on” in the same sense is considerably more recent, apparently dating to the 1960s and seen mostly in the US.  “Hone” itself is a perfectly good verb, of course, meaning “to sharpen,” and comes from the noun “hone,” which comes from the Old English “han” (rock) and today means “sharpening stone, whetstone.”  Chefs have been “honing” their knives for centuries.

The substitution of “hone” for “home” is not a mere spelling mistake; there’s actually a bit of logic to it.  “Hone” has been used in a figurative sense since the mid-19th century to mean “practice or refine,” and we often speak of “honing one’s skills.”  So, for instance, narrowing one’s focus to the most important task on a given day might be plausibly seen as “honing” one’s productivity.  From there it’s a short jump to “honing in” on your top priority.

Which form is correct?  To play it safe, I’d go with “home in on” for the time being.  But in a world where increasing numbers of people have never heard of homing pigeons but every athlete “hones” his or her skills, I’d say that the future probably belongs to “hone in on.”

17 comments to Home in / Hone in

  • I beg to differ. I am 85 years old and have been using the term ‘hone in on’ for as long as I remember (yes, my long term memory is still intact.) I love words and their usage. In my opinion, ‘home in on’ looks and sounds wrong!

    • MCFox

      I’m not quite as old as you, Colleen, but all I can say is: “What she said!”
      -MCFox

      • Tom

        Well, there you go, then. No octogenarian could possibly err in grammar, now could he or she (another speech dragon I wish someone would home in on). Just today I saw CNN display the phrase “hone in on” in relation to Boston bombing suspects. Of course they meant home in on, which just sounds right for every reason the Word Detective listed. But what do I know? I’m only 65.
        Just A. Kid

  • Vicky Ayers

    Another of those changing words that irks me is the substitution of “guide rail” for “guard rail”. Where are they guiding you? After all they eventually end, and then what, you just drive off the road, since you no longer have guidance? They are “guard rails”, dammit! They keep you from accidentally driving off into the gorge, and once you are down on the flats again, you are on your own, happily without the need for quarding OR guiding.

  • Karen

    My problem with “hone in on” is that it’s so clearly a corruption of “home in on,” since there is no literal “hone in” that can serve as the basis for the figurative meaning. After all, “to home in on” a beacon is a well-established expression with a clear literal meaning, and the same phrase can be applied figuratively as in “home in on the answer”. By contrast, when do we ever speak of “honing in on a knife”? Or “honing in” a pair of scissors? Since there’s no literal meaning of “hone in on” or even “hone in,” the phrase makes sense only as a mixture of “hone” and “home in on,” and in that case, I’d rather stick with the original, unadulterated expression, “home in on.”

  • kidvermicious

    I don’t know why other people being dumb makes me mad. But they do. They should stop it.

  • What bothers me is probably the same as that which bothers Karen about the use of “hone in,” rather than “home in.” There’s no logic to it, and to use the former indicates a lack of awareness of this. What bothers me even more is observing people make the same mistakes that I made have made a few decades ago when I would use unexamined turns of phrase incorrectly. The idea that my own self-correction is lost on the masses makes my very existence seem futile! Perhaps I should lighten up . . .

  • Harriett

    I cannot find a verb “to home ” / “home in on” in any dictionary that I have consulted but there is a verb “HONE”. I know it means “Sharpen” but could it mean Sharpen your focus ??’

    • misha

      Harriett, I will try to home in on my point. Eh, what was I saying? I need to sharpen my focus, or should I say hone my focus? Hone my point? I lost my homing beacon and I can’t find my way…Use the one you think works best, or like William Shakespeare, invent a word where one does not yet exist. I have to admit to being as much of a curmudgeon about proper grammar as the next grammar guru; however, this seems a lot like Camelot in Quest for the Holy Grail, “‘Tis a silly thing.”

    • Harriet, from the OED on my computer and online:

      verb [ no obj. ]
      1 (of an animal) return by instinct to its territory after leaving it: a dozen geese homing to their summer nesting grounds.
      • (of a pigeon bred for long-distance racing) fly back to or arrive at its loft after being released at a distant point.
      2 (home in on) move or be aimed toward (a target or destination) with great accuracy: more than 100 missiles were launched, homing in on radar emissions.
      • focus attention on: a teaching style that homes in on what is of central importance for each student.

      From etymology online: home (v.) 1765, “to go home”, from home (n.). Meaning “be guided to a destination by radio signals, etc. (of missiles, aircraft, etc.) is from 1920; it had been used earlier in reference to pigeons (1862). Related: Homed; homing. O.E. had hamian “to establish in a home”.

  • > Oh, correct, shmorrect. Whatever floats your boat, I say. It’s a lovely day and I have cats to herd. If you’re really worried about being “correct,” …

    Um… yeah. That’s why were here.

    Thanks for the information, but I almost didn’t read it, since I wasn’t sure how long you were going to avoid answering the question. I’d suggest throw a quick answer out fast, and then explain. That way everyone is happy, and people who want to know why will keep reading. I wish everyone did, but some people are busy / lazy.

    Cheers,
    Jason

  • Robert Smith

    HOME in was used for HOMING missiles homing in on their targets. HONE means to sharpen and could be used to mean finely adjusting something. The guy that says honing in is the same as homing in is flat wrong as are everybody else I hear confusing the terms.

  • Al Friedman

    I have always used the term to hone I on and only recently read the term home in on. I’m not a spring chicken, sadly, but from this discussion, I am inclined to think there must be a regional difference. I have been on the west coast for over 60 years…

  • Danny Baker

    If it were just the question of which verb to use (home vs. hone), there would be no controversy. The long-established meanings of both of those verbs are applicable in their respective ways to the usage in question. The problem lies in the addition of “in” or “in on”, as Karen nicely explained way back on June 8, 2010. Taken as a complete phrase (not just the verb), only “home in” or “home in on” makes any real sense. It’s OK for language to evolve, but this is a clear example of degradation, since those who favor “hone in” do so in ignorance of how the meaning of the phrase differs from the meaning of the verb…

  • Cixi

    In the past year I’ve been working with some Australians who often use the phrase “hone in on”. I had never heard it before during more than 50 years in the US and the UK. I’d like to know whether everyone in Australia uses that phrase, but have so far refrained from asking them because I haven’t had the heart to tell them I think they’ve got it wrong.

    I googled “hone in” to try to find out what the experts say about it, and was delighted to find this site. I love it and will definitely visit again!

  • Will

    Hone in is correct. It is much older than “home in” which is a more recent confusion used by lazy non-readers who hear it incorrectly and make the leap from the original usage to the idea of homing pigeons. Anyone who has read classic literature extensively knows the term “hone in” is correct. That,seemingly, would exclude most current journalists.

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