Honing in on homing in

In the very, very broad category or errors that fall under the heading of “ww” (“wrong word”), we all have those that we commonly get wrong. All of us also have those that irritate us just a little more than is rational. Go ahead, admit it. No one will believe you if you don’t.

One of the “ww” errors that has been bothering me for some time is the trouble many (perhaps most?) writers show in distinguishing between hone and home, especially in the hone in and home in constructions.

I might as well start with a bang here. I won’t often say something as bold as “your dictionary is wrong,” but in this case I’m willing to. What’s the point of even having guns if you’re not going to stick to them?

Dictionaries and usage guides almost all state something along the lines of “hone simply means to sharpen,” while “home in derives from guided missiles.” Some go on to say that while “hone in” is wrong, it’s slowly gaining equivalency with “home in.”

Bah. They’ve got this entirely wrong. Not out of malice, but simply because they’re not paying close enough attention.

What we’re seeing here is the evolution of the language before our eyes.

The usage dictionaries have so far failed to notice that there is, in fact, quite a distinction between the two phrases, “to hone in” and “to home in.” Among careful and precise users of English, they are actually coming to have very different meanings. Despite the fairly clear origin (it’s “home in” – I readily concede), “hone in” is not a simple misspelling or misuse. It’s no eggcorn. It is developing a distinct shade of meaning.

“Home in” (or “home in on”)  retains its traditional meaning: use it when you are talking about a person, an item, or a process that is returning to an original point, or that is moving toward a known end. Think of that guided missile, or perhaps of a homing pigeon, which already knows where it wants to go.

“Hone in” (or “hone in on”) is the phrase you want when you don’t know precisely where you’re going, but you’re getting closer. It borrows from the traditional meaning of hone, to sharpen (colloquially, to focus, or to narrow). You hone in when you’re searching for something: the culprit, the undiscovered gene, the source of contamination. You know it’s out there, but you’re still looking for it. You’re honing in.

I believe thoughtful users intuitively recognize the distinction, and I suspect it will only be a matter of time before the language catches up. Help it out, and make use of either, as appropriate, in your own writing.

You’re not going to find much support for what I’ve written here out among the reliable sources (although Quinion was moving in the right direction back in 2007). And “home in” still outnumbers “hone in”by about 160:1 in Google, for what that’s worth.

But I hope that after you’ve read my explanation here you’ll take it under advisement and do your part to plant this one firmly in the lexicon.

Trivial revision (missing pronoun corrected) 10 November 2017.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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6 Responses to Honing in on homing in

  1. Pingback: A myriad explained — in honor of 10,000 hits | thebettereditor

  2. westsidejack says:

    Nice, I liked that distinction and explanation.

  3. Susan Sylvia says:

    I agree–and thanks for honing in on the most thoughtful approach. English is an elegant language, with so many delicately nuanced synonyms.

  4. Jonathan Williams says:

    The term “Hone in” is born of a mistake and has no value in the English language. However, never mind the etymology, the psychology is fascinating. There are dumb folk who use “hone in” for obvious reasons. Then there are smarter people who, when made aware of their silly error, construct convoluted, vaguely absurd arguments to justify their mistake. These invariably rely on very narrow and subtle definitions which in no way relate to everyday usage. Better yet, they use the simplistic and usually disingenuous, “English is a living language and this represents an evolution…..” argument (or excuse). Chris feels obliged to add his own qualifiers, “I believe thoughtful users intuitively recognize the distinction . . . .”. Perhaps he is proposing that only the thoughtful, the intuitive and those with enough intelligence to recognize subtle distinctions are capable of using his version of this erroneous term. We have here a classic example of intelligent people using clever argument to support an opinion that they formed by other than intellectual means.

    • Hi, Jonathon –
      I’ve let your comment appear here on the blog, despite it adding nothing to the discussion.
      Your post is ironic in the extreme: it’s a simplistic and disingenuous argument for fossilizing language and denying linguistic evolution. If English (and every other language) were not a grand collection of new definitions and terms (which you would dismiss as “born of a mistake” and having “no value”) we’d all still be grunting away in our caves in some original proto-language. Or would your personal bias prefer that we speak in some Chaucerian dialect of English that’s been frozen in the 14th century?
      We have here a classic example of a drive-by internet troll using clever language to call someone dumb, silly, and absurd because they disagree with an opinion, and then vanishing into the ether.
      But thanks for dropping by.
      – Chris

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