Home in / Hone in

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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.”

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