Hone In vs. Home In

It’s fairly common to say or read that something ‘honed’ in on a point. However, the correct phrase is to ‘home’ in on a point. Keep reading to see why that is the proper term and why there is such confusion!

Home vs. Hone

Before we discuss the phrase in question, it’s a good idea to define the terms. Most of us are familiar with the noun form of home, which is a house in which we live. However, in this case we are discussing the verb form and — more specifically — the verb form relating to aircraft. The OED defines home as:

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[ally] with in on, or less commonly on, on to, or towards. [OED ‘Home, v.’ 5.a.]

This definition, which stems from the 1920s, not only mentions moving to a specific location but being guided to do so through technological means. To hone, on the other hand, means:

to head directly for something; to turn one’s attention intently towards something. Usu[ally] with on. [OED ‘Hone, v.’ 4.a]

Wait, what? Doesn’t that sound like what we need for this particular phrase? Well, for one thing, this didn’t arise until the 1960s. But also, the origination of this definition is due to a cultural misunderstanding. Here’s the catch:

Etymology:  Apparently an alteration of home v., probably arising by folk-etymological association with hone v.orig. U.S. [OED ‘Hone, v.’ 4.a]
This tells us two key things: firstly, it’s an American alteration of the phrase. Secondly, a ‘folk-etymological association’ implies that this interpretation came from a misinterpretation of the other definition of hone. The definition being referenced is:

To sharpen (a blade, etc.), esp. on a hone [OED ‘Hone, v.’ 3.a]

hone

This is a “hone”, picture found on Amazon.com

When using the phrase ‘to home in’, this definition of hone doesn’t fit as appropriately as the aforementioned definition of home. Therefore, to home in is the more technically correct phrase.

Final Thoughts

Even though the correct word to use in this case is home, in the U.S. you’re more likely to see hone. If you’re in the U.S. and use hone, you will most likely be fine unless you’re in a setting in which you are expected to use standard written English. Elsewhere in the world, particularly the U.K., home is more commonly used. Hope this helped; good luck! 😀

Posted in Grammar Quick Fix.