Home vs Hone Grammar Hammer

Any editor will tell you that spellcheck is an unreliable proofreading tool. Everyone – including seasoned scribes – needs a second set of (human) eyes to catch missteps.

Inc.com recently published a list of 20 embarrassing errors even smart writers make. Among the most commonly misused expressions was the phrasal verb “honed in.”

The difference between “hone in” and “home in” is something I felt pretty confident about until someone asked me why “honing in on a target” was grammatically incorrect. I was flummoxed and stuttered out something about homing pigeons.

I’m not incorrect – the use of “home” as a verb (meaning: to return home or proceed toward an objective) does date back to the 1860s and a pigeon’s ability to “home” by sight. In the 20th century, the verb “to home” was used in reference to missiles homing in on a target.

The verb “to hone,” on the other hand, means to sharpen or make more acute. As a flutist, I can “hone” my craft by practicing my flute every day for 30 minutes.

However, over the last fifty years, these two phrases have become more interchangeable.

At times, language watchdogs have accepted the swap of hone for home (as is the case with Merriam-Webster’s reference to George Plimpton’s “looking back for the ball honing in”). However, ask another George about it and you’ll find that audiences can be very unforgiving. President George H.W. Bush was blasted when he said he planned to “hone in on the issues.”

Language is always evolving, so perhaps “hone in on” will soon become a widely accepted reference to “moving towards a target.” If you’d prefer to maintain grammatical purity, my advice is this:

When the words “in on” need to follow that verb describing what you’re doing, you should most often stick with “home.”

To help you remember the difference, here’s a seasonally inspired example:

In the hopes of having a nice yard she can enjoy each summer, Cathy is honing her skills in the garden by homing in on the prevalence of pervasive weeds and overgrowth.

Read more: Grammar Hammer: I Assure You, It’s Easy to Ensure and Important to Insure