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.