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Hone In or Home In?

I was scrolling through the excellent Grammar Hell site today, when I came upon a bit of information that surprised me. The topic was “hone in” or “home in”?

Let’s look at the issue. Which is correct in this sentence, “home in” or “hone in”?

I wish we would hone/home in on the real issues.

According to most references including the confident, outspoken Grammar Hell, the correct expression is “home in” because “to home” means “to move or lead toward a goal.” The example above can be interpreted like this:

I wish we could move toward the real issues.

In contrast, hone means “to sharpen,” as in “to hone one’s skills.”

Using the explanations above–found in many printed and online resources–“hone in” would never be correct. We do not say “sharpen in.”

But grammar and usage are not as unbending as the rules seem to suggest. What if I want to sharpen my focus on something? Couldn’t I hone in on it?

Despite the advice of most books on my bookshelf and many online sources, I would say this:

I wish we would hone in on the real issues.

My meaning is “I wish we would focus on [sharpen our focus on] the real issues.”

If you care about these topics, you may be wondering whether any reference books support my view. In fact, The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2004, open on my desk now, says this:

hone in. 1. To move or advance toward a target or goal. Often used with on. 2. To direct one’s attention; focus.

Merriam-Webster Online says this about “hone in”:

Etymology: Alteration of “home in”: to move toward or focus attention on an objective.

Merriam-Webster also states that although “hone in” is considered a mistake by commentators, it has established itself in American English–and perhaps in British English as well.

Here is the moral of the story: Language is fluid. It changes and stretches. Just when we think we can home in / hone in on a rock-solid rule, we find the sands of language shifting. You take one route, I’ll take another, and let’s meet gladly at the end of the sentence.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

73 comments on “Hone In or Home In?”

  • Lynn:

    Point well-taken. Much to’s dismay, there’s no black-and-white answer on this issue. Thanks for the great post.


  • My trick for remembering the distinction: think of homing pigeons. Indeed, according to Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, the phrase “home in” originated as a metaphor to describe what homing pigeons do, metaphorically applied to what aircraft and missiles do.

  • Ray, good suggestion. I had better try it. Since Friday, I have seen “hone” everywhere. It will take some discipline to begin “homing in.”

  • Good comments, all. However, as Lynn notes, the use of the term ‘hone in’ is a derivative of the meaning ‘to focus, or sharpen.’ As such, it is not interchangeable with the term ‘home in,’ which is indicative of an action of orientation.

    The online The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2004 lists an etymology similar to that of M-W Online: “ETYMOLOGY:
    Middle English, from Old English h n, stone; see k – in Indo-European roots. Hone in alteration of home in”

    It seems to me that as communicators have become farther removed from the message receivers, the potential for mis-hearing common-sounding letters such as “M” and “N” has increased. Other examples of such possible mis-heard then repeated words include ampitheater (for amphitheater) and expresso (for espresso).

    My point is not that ‘hone in’ is incorrect or that ‘home in’ is proper, but that care should be taken when using phrases that could (should?) be replaced with more precise words. If one wants to say ‘hone in,’ opt for ‘sharpen’ or ‘focus’ instead.

  • Kyle, I like your point. Thanks for honing in on the topic. Oops–thanks for focusing on it!


  • I came across “hone in” on a web page this evening, and it’s use (by a published author) grated on me. I googled ‘is “honed in” proper’ and got right to this site. Thank you for telling me about GrammerHell, by the way — I’ll have to go check it out.

    The aforementioned author I was reading did use the term “honed in” in the sharpen focus sense — I guess I can get used to that, maybe. But if you substitute “home in”, it still works for me in that context, and seems more natural.

    However, check out the example in the American Heritage (or from free

    hone in

    1. To move or advance toward a target or goal: The missiles 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.

    #1 just plain seems wrong, because “homed” or “homed in” works perfectly in that instance. However, as one of the dictionarys said, “honed in” is “an alteration” — I guess that means a mutation-by-mishearing in this case — so that sort of henceforth authorizes the usage… ? … ! … ? because language is fluid. At the end of the day, I try not to argue with fluidity, but still … honed in just grates on my ears.

  • Phil, I’m with you about not arguing with fluidity. But when we do bow to fluidity, we risk having traditionalists think we don’t know what we are doing.

    I spent most of my life thinking “hone in” was the only rendering unless one was a pigeon. It seems there is always more to learn.

    By the way, Grammar Hell ceased to exist, but is its incarnation. Enjoy!

    Thanks for commenting.


  • “Hone in” is NEVER correct. It was only ever used accidently, as “hone” sounds similar to “home,” but means something entirely different. Trying to incorporate a mistake into accepted usage is just wrong.

    Your example of “I wish we could hone in on the issues” is incorrect. As your meaning is “I wish we would focus on [sharpen our focus on] the real issues,” the word “hone” would be used in this sentence: “I wish we could hone our views on the real issues.” One never “hones (or sharpens) IN.”

  • Hi, Vittoria. I like to use references to help me decide about language. Does your dictionary of choice agree with you?

  • Before modern aviation navaids Non-directonal Beacons (NDBs) were used to find your way when you could not use a map.

    We “homed in” on the station.

    Never heard of a “honing” pigeon.


  • No you cannot “hone in” at all. As soon as you use the word focus as in when you substituted ‘sharpen our focus on’ for ‘hone in’ you are incorrect since ‘focus on’ and ‘home-in’ are synonymous. You, by the way, never sharpen your focus but you can sharpen your image or adjust your focus or focus in or focus on but never sharpen your focus. Home comes from the same concept as ‘homing pigeon’ or ‘homing signal’ or ‘homing beacon.’ Airplanes navigate by tuning their radio direction finder to a ‘homing signal’ produced by a ‘homing beacon.’ Your definition:

    hone in. 1. To move or advance toward a target or goal. Often used with on. 2. To direct one’s attention; focus.

    is completely incorrect as this is actually the meaning for “home in.” I know it is confusing but it is usually a mistake that non-technical people frequently make. If you were a military person or an airplane person or an electronics technician or an engineer you would probably never get this confused. You would have the concepts firmly entrenched in your mind from your earliest training in physics, science and engineering. As both an engineer and a journalist I run across this conflict everyday and it is one of my pet peeves. Grrrrr. Sorry to school you on this but it is an uncontrollable urge on my part. Now what about jibe vs. jive, eh?

  • I’d suggest using the OED to sort this out. “Home” is used in the 18th century for the capacity of animals to find their home. In the 19th century, the phrase “home in on” appears. “Hone in on” appears in the 1940s. Language is fluid, and “hone in on” is common, especially in the Midwest. But the expression “to sharpen in on” makes little sense. The meaning “to sharpen attention” is derivative from the “eggcorn” “hone in on.”

  • In one way, it doesn’t matter, since anyone hearing you will understand you whether you say “home in” or “hone in.” In another way it does matter, since “hone in” is popularly recognized as incorrect (no matter what the reference works allow). If you want to be understood AND sound correct, go for “home in.” If you want to sound a little less than fluent, stick with “hone in.” While we’re at it, my dictionary allows “supposably” for “supposedly,” but if you use the former, you will raise suspicions about yourself.

  • Everything granted. But I am guessing someone will agree with me in that to those brought up on British English, “hone in on” makes no sense whatsoever. It is a dismal picture that in the name of sands of language, it is being reduced to rubble.

    I feel truly very sorry. And miserable.

  • And further, sorry, but I am not going to take such things lying down. If the sands have to shift, then it has to have some consensus. Just because some laggard misspelt it and because he/she happened to be a celebrity or something, I am not going to accept such utter nonsense.

  • “What if I want to sharpen my focus on something? Couldn’t I hone in on it?”

    You can “hone in” on something, but you must acknowledge that “hone” in this case is an alteration of “home.” By bringing “sharpen” into the picture, you’re confusing the issue and trying to force “hone in” to actually make sense. You can’t have it both ways: Use it, but don’t try to make “hone in” mean “sharpen focus on.” That’s not what it means; any similarity in meaning between “home in” and “hone” are entirely coincidental.

  • After refreshing my understanding of the classic woodworking usage of “hone”, I’ve concluded that the correct and proper usage ought to be as follows:

    “The president is expected to hone his presentation of the issue, which up to now has been seen as too vague, homing in on the controvesial details of the bill before Congress.”

    Ultimately, “hone in on” constitutes a mixed metaphor, a bit of a malapropism, and an abbreviation of two hierarchically separate processes. In order to hone a blade, one homes in on an edge.

    Pulitzer winner Clarence Page uses the malapropism, which is what it ought to be called.

    Let’s ask Safire. Merriam-Webster homes in on none other than Plympton, who passed it on to Bush forty-one, and Safire settles it for me:

  • Either would be properly trussed-up with that little used punctuation mark. Pet peeve needs to go out to hurry-up….

  • Baing a professional 18th-century cabinetmaker, who uses a whetstone daily, I can authoritatively say that one hones-in on nothing…he hones-out dullness.
    Nevertheless, hello, it’s hone-in.

  • Some things don’t exist. Dark and sharpness are examples. They are negative terms which describe the absence of something.

    dark : light :: sharp : dull

    Chisel-use sharpens one’s awareness of chisel-edge-condition. It is sharp or it is not. One looks at the edge, sees light reflecting off the bluntness, resolves to hone it out, whets, backs-off, strops, sees no light-reflection from the edge, tries it against the thumbnail, smiles and returns to ‘work’.
    Of course, all this is abstract platonic ‘form’. But then, the perfectionist chisel-wielder has deliberately dulled his hopes to achieve that exquisite non-existent boundary where mirror-bright plane meets concave-curve called ‘edge’.
    Must focus, now…go milk-paint that corner cupboard….

  • I have to say that “honing” and “homing” have inspired more literate comments than anything I have written about.

    Thanks for your wisdom–and wisecracks.

  • Some of us could stand to home in on sources that will hone our writing talents.

    An unclear message is more difficult to defend than an error in usage.

  • In clinical medicine, a physician reading an X-ray may ask the radiographer to “cone down” on a suspicious area, meaning that he/she would like another film that provides a more focused and detailed image of the area of concern.The term derives from the use of an inverted cone-shaped device that narrows the beam in an old-fashion X-ray machine).

    Among clinicians the term is also used more colloquially to mean the same thing as “hone in”, for example “we need to cone down on the over-utilization question if we want to solve the cost problem”.

    Is this term now used much outside of the world of doctor-speak? Is it intuitive enough to be useful in general conversation?

  • Can I offer a suggestion?

    You “home in” when you move directly towards an objective. For example the missile homed in on the target.

    You “hone in” when you gradually move towards an objective by improving in steps, but never quite reaching perfection, as when you sharpen a hand tool. For example after many experiments he honed in on a great recipe.

  • At least here in California, I hear the phrase “hone in” most often. In my experience people nearly always use it to mean “focus on.” I’ve heard the term “home in” a few times when speakers are trying to describe the action of a missile “homing in” on it’s target (think Top Gun).

    I’m not sure why some of the people who commented seemed upset about this issue. In language, sound and meaning are connected in an arbitrary manner, save for rare instances such as in onomatopoeia. If the English-speaking population understood “mooglypoogly” to mean “hone in” then “mooglypoogly” would be just as valid an expression as “hone in.” What does it matter if “home in” seems more logical than “hone in”?

    I think we should embrace the variety of expressions found in our language and appreciate the richness such variety brings us. Voicing the frustrations of self-proclaimed grammar experts just makes us look like uptight blow-hards shouting from an ivory tower.

    I enjoyed the original article.

  • I continue to savor the comments on this subject. By the way, I wrote a post addressing Geoff’s question about “cone down.” If you are interested, search for the term “cone down” in the search box on this site, and you will find it.

    Thanks, everyone!


  • How about “hone our focus on”, since we don’t sharpen in on issues, but rather, sharpen our focus. However, I think it’s just plain too awkward to try and salvage what is at bottom a simple mistake. “To home” is general enough that “sharpening” adds nothing in the way of usage and meaning. To really lay this issue at rest, using the most concrete example available, we should “home in” like a missle and blast “hone in” to smithereens wherever we find it.

  • I came to this site because an author’s use of “home in” grated. Growing up with American English, I always made a similar distinction between further and farther as between home in and hone in. If there is a physical base, then home in; if there is a conceptual base, then hone in.
    this site suggests that I have been incorrect my whole life. Sometimes research results are painful.

  • HONE is a verb, so I’ll use HONE thank you very much.

    HOME however is a noun. HOME as discussed here is a great example of grammar’s greatest enemy and that very modern bastard, verbification. The very first (and without a doubt dimwitted) person who uttered HOME as a verb should have been drawn and quartered. /over-the-top

    Okay, there is one instance in which I’d use HOME, and that is when I am honing in on MY home or the home of someone else. That’s it. And you can’t make me change. Freedom of Speech! Attica! Attica!


    You are correct, Lynn, fluidity! Yes, language is always changing and not all of us have signed the contract on permanence nor has everyone received the latest message about change. Who has time? If the gist of the meaning is clear, wassa matta u? If the gist is unclear or if you’re naturally a litigious arsemunch, then that’s one reason we have so many gottam lawyers.

  • Silly me. I failed to include that to me HONE is the equivalent of narrowing down, which is rather like focus but focus has a preconceived object in mind whereas narrow is the elimination of objects, which is very much like sharpen.

    Ugh, never mind, I’m going in circles. Or am about to… so I’m stopping — right here — and going to go grab another Judy Garland. Caffeine and booze, dear, espresso and vodka, whatever you got.

  • When I discover an error in my usage of the language, I stop making the error. The author doesn’t take this approach. The author, instead, endeavors to “prove,” with pretzel-shaped logic, that there was never an error at all.

    Yes, language is fluid. However, during the transition period, before the mistake becomes the norm, we should recognize that we’re choosing to err, rather than pretending the mistake is just hunky-dory.

    “Supercede” is another good example. It’s just plain wrong, but, like “hone in on,” will eventually become fully accepted usage.

  • Oh, Yes. Woe to the heretical serfs and uneducated underlings who would allow the Kings English be made imperfect …

    Seriously, I am a bit amazed at the pious nature in a portion of academia.

    If we want to argue hierarchies of expressions and what is “proper”; let us not forget that language was spoken before it was written.

    Lynn, thank you for writing this piece so many years ago and for loving your work (‘;

    If I may, I would like to offer my thoughts and feelings in the hope of inspiring insight.

    How long have we been rubbing sticks and stones to make tools? Some would say our honing days began ages ago when from our growls and moans did language flow. It appears that we have come a long way, but most have forgotten how it feels to hone.
    It may take many hours of deliberate labor to create that point or edge. The concentration and body fatigues, but just a slip and one’s own blood is drawn. It is safer to “hone out”, but over time a bur is formed from the curling of the most malleable edge. In the final strokes we may turn the blade and begin ” honing in” to remove this bur and set the final edge. “Honing in” is the crescendo of concentration and anticipation that the labor will be complete: the “home stretch” if you will.

    When I hear “honing in” I feel what it means just as “home in” has such a primal meaning. Wherein lies much of the beauty of language. Words can be profoundly deep beyond the literal and the connotations impact beyond conscious reasoning.
    This is an era of rapidly changing technology, language, business, etc. and the reference materials are being revised continually.
    In other words, I suggest we enjoy saying what we mean when we write and don’t take subjective elements too seriously, especially me as I have no formal education to speak of. If it were not for spell check this would be most indecipherable ( ‘ :

    Lynn, thank you for the wonderful resource and thanks to all who read my spiel. Levi

  • Levi, thank you for taking the time to elaborate on the evolution of language and the inspiration language provides. I enjoyed reading your ideas.

    I also appreciate your kind words about my work here.


  • The honing rod in your kitchen will not sharpen a dull knife. I work in a machine shop and the term “hone” does not mean to sharpen. It means to polish.

    When you hone a hole, you don’t sharpen it. You polish the inside. The inside of the cylinder in your car’s engine is honed.

  • Hone means to grind, polish, or sharpen, by friction.
    Home (the verb) means to seek home, as in a homing pigeon seeking it’s base, or nest, or roost, or “home.”
    Hone is a very old word and it pre-dates the more modern home (verb).
    The expression honing-in did not occur until after the advent of the expression homing-in.
    Honing-in is simply a mistake which has gained legitimacy by repetition, and the reason some of us are bothered by this is because it is essentially nonsense, even if most of us know what is meant by it. This is not an example of fluidity in language, it’s an example of incorrect language, and it doesn’t clarify communication, rather it muddies it.

  • yea y bovver gettin things rite? as long as u can understand it thats all that matters!!!! dis is correct :))

  • Bravo, Hpjunior ang George Lyle, for refusing to go gentle into that good night.

    It’s true that a major source of fluidity in language is the acceptance of clear mistakes over time – but that doesn’t mean we have to like it, or (Lynn) help it along.

  • I resign myself to hearing and (shudder) accepting “hone” as having the same meaning as “home.” We are stubborn creatures, we humans, and will use any kind of convoluted, illogical arguments to defend our views and beliefs. Someone misheard “home in on” as “hone in on” and rather than acknowledge that (s)he misheard chose to develop and propound an argument “proving” the correctness of the misheard word. No amount of pointing to marked differences in meaning and usage will budge the “hone” users. Resistance is futile. Resignation is one’s only solace.

  • Well, this is kind of like the abortion issue for me; I’m a little torn here–meaning that I agree with the viewpoint of BOTH SIDES–which makes it hard for me to come down decisively on one side of the issue or the other. I hear those who say that language is fluid, and it bends and stretches, etc.–however, from a purely TECHNICAL standpoint (as evaluating things from is sometimes necessary and appropriate), I think that “home in” is the correct terminology for much of what “hone in” is incorrectly applied to, and I don’t think that bending the rules makes it that much less of a gaffe when it’s used incorrectly. (And all of this from a guy who admittedly will sometimes use “hone in” when it is actually “home in” that I’m trying to express!) When stating something, we may sometimes use incorrect terminology and get away with it without being called on it–but much like saying something like: “The letter came from my wife and I”, there’s no getting away from the fact that the CORRECT phraseology actually is: “The letter came from my wife and ME”. (I largely blame the inappropriate use of the word “I” when the word “ME” is actually correct on our scholastic system which has for decades drilled into young minds the reverse of that situation, when “I” is correct, and “ME” isn’t without adequately teaching the distinction between when each word should be used to form a sentence–to the point where many people grow up ALWAYS using the word “I” in sentences–often incorrectly–because all they remember is being taught that they should say “My wife and I”, “My mother and I”, etc., without adequately being shown the mechanics of why IT’S ONLY CORRECT TO USE “I” PART OF THE TIME, and the rest of the time it’s correct to say “My wife and ME”.) At any rate, if it’s right, it’s right, and if it’s not, it’s not–and while on the one hand, I applaud a certain amount of “bending” of the rules to make room for tolerable and justifiable changes in our lexicon/vernacular, on the other hand, I can also appreciate the rules remaining UNBENT to a large degree–depending on which PRECISE rule we’re talking about. I guess I believe that such considerations should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Personally, I use “hone in” more often than I use “home in” to state what is correctly expressed by using “home in”–probably because “hone in” just sounds better to my ear, even though TECHNICALLY I know that “hone in” is wrong (or for the sake of argument, is probably the less correct of the two.)

  • Lynn, your misunderstanding of how to differentiate between hone and home hinges on your use of the word “in.” You home in, but you hone. I’m surprised that you do not see that the confusion arises out of the face that the words sound so much alike. That doesn’t make them interchaneable.

  • Even though I know that missiles ‘home in’, I’ve always thought ‘hone in’ was the correct term to use otherwise. I’m pretty certain I’ve actually said ‘we’re going to hone in on that issue’ at work. Several times. How embarrassing! Thanks for the education and the great blog 🙂

  • That’s interesting! Even as a student English teacher, I would have chosen “hone,” so it goes to show how difficult grammar can be.

  • I love that this debate has raged for six years. I’m a publisher and earlier chastised an employee for using “hone in” as opposed to “home in”, which incidentally, is correct. Leslie has it spot on. Anyone who accepts “hone” on the grounds of fluidity probably shouldn’t be on this site. Those who are, clearly care about grammar and spelling, so should accept when they are wrong.

  • Ugh. I’m all for the “fluidity of language”, but that doesn’t mean we should accept mistakes as valid grammatical use.

    As you correctly state, “hone means “to sharpen,” as in “to hone one’s skills.”” One cannot “sharpen in”.

    Should we just let common mistakes become accepted?

    Shall we allow people to use “their” when they mean “they’re” just because it’s a common mistake.

    Americans certainly love to say “real” when they mean “really”, and “good” when they mean “well”. Is it suddenly okay to use adjectives as adverbs?

    How about the way young people have misheard the Latin “versus”, meaning “against”, as “verses”? They now think that “to verse” is a verb, meaning “to fight/oppose”, and will say things like “I’ll verse you”. Should we just let people turn a preposition into a verb?

    New language use is fine, but not at the expense of correct grammar, especially if it introduces ambiguity or utterly nonsensical statements.

    However is seems that many Americans “could care less”…

  • Honing is a sharpening and/or smoothing and/or grinding process. “Sharpen” is not always properly used as a synonym for “hone.” “Hone in” is truly a nonsensical phrase, since one hones, but does not hone in. Think of substituting the verb “perfect” and you’ll see that “perfect in” is ridiculous. You can hone skills just as you can perfect them, but you can never perfect in on them. “Home in” is an absolute must in every usage of this sort.

  • Except “hone in” is grammatically incorrect because “hone” is an intransitive verb. Calling a language fluid when a grammatical error falls into common use seems a little sad.

  • Hi, Verbosity. Thanks for your comment. I am at the airport and don’t have my dictionary handy, but I believe “hone” is a transitive verb. Consider “hone your skills.”

    I appreciate your joining the conversation.


  • Hone in is always incorrect, if you think about it. As you mentioned, you can sharpen or hone your focus on an idea. But then the object is your focus, not the idea. So you still wouldn’t sharpen in your focus on an idea. If you don’t like the sound of home in, just say hone. Hone an idea, instead of hone in on an idea. If you want to hone your focus, you can do that to, but if you have to add an in after hone, then what you really mean is home in.

  • I read a NY Times article on education this morning in which the author a teacher using hone in. I would have ignored what I considered a minor error in usage, were it not for the fact that the teacher’s also contained grammatical errors in agreement of number.
    Years ago, my daughter brought home a mimeographed English assignment that contained six grammatical errors. I circled them in red, and sent it back to the teacher with a note as to why my child did not complete the assignment. The teacher sent me a very apologetic note.
    Note to the gentleman who provided resume services: In today’s tight labor market, any indication of sloppiness, including misuse of a word or phrase on a resume would probably result in the document being relegated to the circular file.

  • There I go with my own sloppiness.
    …in which the author quoted a teacher
    …the teacher’s quote also…

  • Today, I read of a little electronic “beacon” which you can attach to your keys or other perpetually misplaced item. You can then use your smartphone to “home in” on the lost item. The name of the device is, of course, “Hone.” No mention if it perhaps also sharpens knives.

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