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.