What’s the issue?
Which of these two sentences do you think is correct?
A teaching style which homes in on what is important for each pupil.
A teaching style which hones in on what is important for each pupil.
Where you live in the English-speaking world will affect your opinion.
Which also means that whichever version you use, someone somewhere is likely to consider it wrong. (And if they are of the “grammar” pedantry persuasion, to take great delight in doing so.)
(But if you are not a British English speaker, the chances are that you’ll plump for the second one.)
A handful of examples
Once again the media homed in on Tyrannosaurus.
DRUG dealers were today warned that the police were homing in on them after a man caught with drugs worth £26,000 was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail.
Bolton Evening News (UK)
Unfortunately, many Twitter users homed in on an Alan Joyce of Stanford, California. The American acquired more than 300 extra Twitter followers in the past 24 hours after tweeters confused him with the Qantas boss.
New Zealand Herald.
The writer Malcolm Hulke really seems to be honing in on the anxieties of the time, by focusing on the pollution of the planet and leaving the earth uninhabitable.
The Independent blog (UK).
Yes, they had those rhetorically brilliant 1858 debates, but the election of 1860, waged in a fiercely divided country, also honed in on the candidates’ appearances [sic].
Therefore, we hope to initially hone in on some sightings of Raja [sc. an animal] by villagers of the area.
Sunday Times (Sri Lanka).
- Hone in seems to be as widely used as home in, if not more widely.
- If you use it, you are in the majority, but several reputable sources view it as a mistake.
- For many people, however, it is the only correct version, and makes sense semantically.
- Both phrasal verbs can be seen as “skunked”, i.e. they will offend someone’s linguistic sense of smell, so they might be best avoided.
- There is an argument that hone in is a separate development, not a mistake.
- Users of each version can easily find justifications for them – specious or otherwise, selon votre goût.
À la carte menu
Read on …
Worldwide, more people use hone in than home in.
A US copywriter spotted “home in” in a blog of mine, and kindly pointed out what she thought was a typo. She was surprised when I told her it was intentional. In a straw poll in her office – this was in the US, remember – everyone agreed hone was the only correct version.
That surprised me. I was familiar with the “home in” version, whose meaning has always seemed self-evident to me: I think of a homing pigeon returning to a specific place, or a missile homing in on its target, and therefore to home in on something is to target it or pinpoint it (or, as the ODO definition goes, “Move or be aimed towards (a target or destination) with great accuracy“).
Consequently, as a British English speaker, I have occasionally winced when, for example, British HR-obots talked about “honing in on” a particular point or issue. Shurely shome mishtake, I thought, a misinterpretation, a malapropism, an eggcorn.
I first posted on this topic about 18 months ago, and since then, having looked at more data, I am obliged to change my mind. For it seems that the home in version is a) less frequent across all varieties of English and b) shows signs of being ousted even in British English by the hone in version.
The figures I mention do not show exactly the same picture. Nevertheless …
1 I looked in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), which consists of about 2.6 billion words of data from US, British and several other varieties of English. (Or, to indicate its vast size another way, over 112 million sentences of English.)
I looked for in + on after the lemmas home and hone (i.e. all forms, home, homes, homed, homing). Overall, hone in on is slightly more frequent, with 700 instances against 655.
Looking at regional variation within those figures gives us this table:
|Regional variety||home in on||hone in on|
|South African English||8||6|
|New Zealand English||6||12|
|East Asian English||6||8|
Only in British (and three other varieties, with very low figures, also italicized) is home commoner. The ratio in BrE of home: hone is 80.9:19.1%.
Outside US and Canadian English, the highest ratio of hone: home is in Irish English (78.3:21.7%).
For the US, the ratio is 62.3:37.7%, and for Canada it is 85.7:14.3%.
2 Looking at the Global Corpus of Web-Based English (GloWbE, pronounced “globe”, 1.9 billion words from 1.8 millon web pages) produces rather different results.
Across all 20 varieties of English covered, hone greatly outnumbers home: 786 vs 283 instances.
The figures below show figures for US, Canadian and British English.
|HOMING IN ON||122||29||3||45|
|HOMED IN ON||115||20||7||37|
|HOMES IN ON||29||3||1||13|
|HOME IN ON||17||2||1||8|
|HONE IN ON||411||124||42||73|
|HONING IN ON||154||42||20||31|
|HONED IN ON||145||43||14||27|
|HONES IN ON||76||20||5||12|
The ratio of hone:home for the US is higher still than in the OEC (81:19%), while for Canada it is very similar. For Britain, however, the figures are completely reversed in favour of hone: 58.1:41.9%.
In all other varieties, hone wins.
3 Google books Ngrams shows the lemma home + in on as more frequent than hone + in on, e.g. for the string home in on 10 occurrences per million words in 2000 vs 3 per million in 1999 for hone in on. It also shows a steep rise from the 1970s onwards.
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But hone in on just doesn’t make sense! It’s obviously a crass mistake!!
Mmmmm. It clearly does make sense to very many people, including George Bush.**
- For it to be a mistake, it would have to be clear that home in on was well established before the arrival of hone in on. That is not indisputably so, as Mark Liberman suggested in some detail a while ago.
- The sense development of home in on is fairly clear (see OED citations at the end), but what of hone in on? After all, the core meaning of hone is “to sharpen a blade” (1788), so what has that got to do with “focussing on something”?
Showing the word’s metaphorical extension, the second OED definition of hone is “To refine or practise (a skill, technique, etc.); to make more effective or intense.” The first example in this category is from 1914, but then the next one is from 1955, and the OED notes “Before the mid 20th cent. usu. as part of an extended metaphor”. This is only ten years before the first appearance of hone in.
Well, as regards going from “sharpening” to “focussing”, Grammarist suggests this: “Hone means to sharpen or to perfect, and we can think of homing in as a sharpening of focus or a perfecting of one’s trajectory toward a target. So while it might not make strict logical sense, extending hone this way is not a huge leap.”
Judging by some online comments, some people even see a meaning distinction between the two forms: “’home in’ and ‘hone in’ do not mean the same thing. They have similar but distinct meanings. ‘Home in’ means to get closer to like a missile homing in on its target, while ‘hone in’ means to pay close attention to or listen to something.”
Mark Liberman suggests in detail a development I shall summarize like this:
hone (down) X = “improve X by sharpening focus on the essentials and eliminating or ignoring extraneous materials” –> hone in on Y = “reach Y by a process of successively sharpening focus while eliminating extraneous material.”
What do dictionaries and usage guides say?
A couple of dictionaries list hone in on with no comment, but several others consider it a mistake.
Several style guides take that same view; some set great store by the physical meaning of hone, in a way that comes close to being the etymological fallacy.
Oxford Dictionaries Online in both World English and US versions notes at home in on that hone is quite common in mainstream US writing, but that many people still consider it a mistake, as do Collins and freedictionary.com. Macmillan lists it with no comment.
- The OED makes no bones about calling hone in the result of “folk etymology”.
- My revised (4th) edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage covers similar territory to this blog more briefly, but suggests avoiding either word altogether.
- Merriam-Webster notes the existence of hone in and suggests that it “seems to have become established in American usage”. The American Heritage College Dictionary (2004) gives “to direct one’s attention; focus” as a meaning of hone in.
- Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, however, considers it unequivocally wrong.
- The Guardian style guide notes, somewhat acidly, “home in on, not hone in on, which suggests you need to hone your writing skills.” Neither The Economist nor The Telegraph guides mentions it.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edn, notes: home in. This phrase is frequently misrendered hone in. (Hone means “to sharpen.”) Home in refers to what homing pigeons do; the meaning is “to come closer and closer to a target.”
- The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage charts the development of hone in on, but notes that “If you use it, you should be aware that some people will think that you have made a mistake.”
Various online grammar sites also castigate hone in on as a mistake for home in on. One site (Grammarist), which is more permissive, attracted 57 tetchy and not so tetchy comments, mostly against hone in on.
So…? What should I do?
The hone in variant has been around for half a century. It is used in many parts of the Anglosphere. As discussed, some dictionaries list it without comment, while others warn against it, as do many usage and style manuals.
If you use it, you are unlikely to be misunderstood. However, if you do use it, bear in mind that some people will consider it a mistake, and therefore conclude that you can’t use English “correctly”. And others will come to the same conclusion if you use home in.
To steer clear of the problem, why not use focus on, concentrate on, zero in on, or any other synonym that suits your context?
** From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “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. . . .”
*** OED definitions / earliest citations. (Italics in examples mine.)
- a. intr. Of a homing pigeon: to fly back to its ‘home’ or loft after being released at a distant point; to arrive at the loft at the end of such a flight. Hence of any animal: to return to some specific territory or spot after having left it or having been removed from it. Freq. with to.
1854 Poultry Chron. 1 573/2 It is generally considered that a cock [pigeon] homes quickest when driving to nest, and a hen when she is feeding squabs.
- intr a. Of a vessel, aircraft, missile, etc.: to move or be guided to a target or destination by use of a landmark or by means of a radio signal, detection of a heat signature, etc. Usu. with in on, or less commonly on, on to, or towards. Cf. hone v.4
1920 Wireless World Mar. 728/2 The pilot can detect instantly from the signals, especially if ‘homing’ towards a beacon.
1947 J. G. Crowther & R. Whiddington Sci. at War 119 Torpedoes and bombs that follow or ‘home’ on to their targets.
1968 Galaxy Mag. Nov. 107/1 The only way another ship could get here would be to home in on the drone that our Line ship homed in on.
NB: the previous version of the entry had a 1956 US citation for home in on, in the physical sense.
- b. fig.To make something the sole object of one’s attention; to focus intently on something. Cf.hone v.4
1955 C. M. Kornbluth Mindworm 53 That was near. He crossed the street and it was nearer. He homed on the thought.
1971 New Scientist 16 Sept. 629/1 Mexico’s Professor S. F. Beltran homed in on education as a critical need.
It should be noted that this is a new 3rd edn entry from 2004, which treats hone here as a homograph of hone3 with its meaning of “to sharpen.” I think previously both were grouped under the same headword.
Etymology: Apparently a variant or alteration of another lexical item. Etymons: home v.
Apparently an alteration of home v. (see home v. 5a), probably arising by folk-etymological association with hone v.3
intr. to hone in: to head directly for something; to turn one’s attention intently towards something. Usu. with on. Cf. home v. 5a.
1965 G. Plimpton Paper Lion vii. 62 Then he’d fly on past or off at an angle, his hands splayed out wide, looking back for the ball honing into intercept his line of flight.
1967 N.Y. Times 5 Nov. iii. 10/1 A few who know the wearer well recognize that something is different without honing in on the hairpiece.