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Home and Hone

Commonly Confused Words

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Home and Hone

Traditionally, a missile homes in (not hones in) on a target. The verb hone means "to sharpen." The verb home means "to move toward a goal" or "to be guided to a target." But some usage guides (see notes below) now recognize hone in on as an acceptable alternative to home in on.

Also see: Skunked Term.

Examples:

  • "Much like a heat-seeking missile, a new kind of particle homes in on the blood vessels that nourish aggressive cancers, before unleashing a cell-destroying drug." (Ewen Callaway, New Scientist, July 2008)

  • "A fellow who has a funny bone can learn to hone his skills, but I don't think you can develop a funny bone: you either have it or you don't." (Carl Reiner)

Usage Notes:

  • "home in, not hone in, is the correct phrase. In the 19th century, the metaphor referred to what homing pigeons do; by the early 20th century, it referred also to what aircraft and missiles do.

    "And by the late 20th century, some writers had begun mistaking the phrase by using the wrong verb, hone (= to sharpen) instead of home."
    (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford Univ. Press, 2009)


  • "An issue looming on the usage horizon is the propriety of the phrase hone in on. George Bush's use of this phrase in the 1980 presidential campaign (he talked of 'honing in on the issues') caught the critical eye of political columnist Mary McCrory, and her comments on it were noted, approved, and expanded by William Safire. Safire observed that hone in on is a confused variant of home in on, and there seems to be little doubt that he was right. . . . Our first example of home in on is from 1951, in a context having to do with aviation. Our earliest record of its figurative use is from 1956. We did not encounter hone in on until George Bush used it in 1980. . . .

    "Recent evidence suggests that hone in on is becoming increasingly common. We have found it twice in the past few years in the pages of a popular magazine. . . .

    "It may be that eventually hone in on will become so common that dictionaries will begin to enter it as a standard phrase; and usage commentators will then routinely rail against it as an ignorant corruption of the language. That is a development we can all look forward to, but its time is not yet. In the meantime, we recommend that you use home in on instead."
    (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)


  • "hone in 1. To move or advance toward a target or goal: The missile honed in on the military installation. 2. To direct one's attention; focus. The lawyer honed in on the gist of the plaintiff's testimony.. . . . [Hone in, alteration of home in.]
    (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin, 2006)


  • "The phrase home in on originated with pilots finding their direction beacon, or missiles which home in on the heat emitted from the target satellite. More figuratively, it's used of narrowing the focus of an inquiry or discussion, as in:
    Several unions homed in on 'non standard' workers.
    The relatively uncommon verb hone ("sharpen") is sometimes used by mistake in that phrase. Hone can be used either literally (of sharpening a blade), or figuratively as in honing his argument, i.e. making it more pointed."
    (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004)

Practice:
(a) Freshman-seminar students take part in "trust" activities designed to forge bonds and _____ problem-solving skills.

(b) The laser signal was set to _____ in on the bomb.

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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