‘Home in on’ or ‘hone in on’?

These phrases mean the same thing. Are they both correct, or are the newspapers getting it wrong about half the time?

Andrew Biraj/Reuters
A photo homes in on Kamal, who carries his machine that hones knives by Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on July 9, 2012.

If you take a look at any major American newspaper, you’ll see the phrase “to home in on.” A New York Times article discusses how important it is “to home in on millennials” to create a successful business; The Wall Street Journal notes that “one of the first big companies to home in on performance management” has now abandoned its annual review process; The Christian Science Monitor explains how sharks’ sense of smell helps them “home in on dinner.” 

Reading the very same newspapers, though, you’ll see “to hone in on” too. Understanding the origins of water on earth will help scientists “hone in on planets that might also have ingredients for life”; there are ways “to hone in on a deal and save some money” while traveling; new legislation will “hone in on” some problem areas in American sanctions against Iran. 

These phrases mean the same thing, “to find and move directly toward something” or “to narrow one’s focus.” Are they both correct, or are the newspapers getting it wrong about half the time?  

Home in on came first, although neither phrase is particularly old. It comes from a verb that we encounter much more often as a noun: home, which means “to return home.” Most commonly it is used of pigeons, which can be released hundreds of miles away and navigate back to their loft. (The record distance appears to be 7,200 miles for a pigeon who “homed” to Paris from Vietnam!)

In the 20th century, the verb’s use expanded to include inanimate things that also move or are guided toward a target, such as airplanes, missiles, or boats, and it gained its prepositions “in on.” Around the same time, it came to describe focusing one’s attention in a particular direction: “The politician homed in on the working classes as key to her support.”

Hone, of course, means “to sharpen or refine” whether a razor, a cooking technique, or one’s wit. Hone is a transitive verb – you have to hone something – so, taken literally, “to hone in on” doesn’t make sense. Not making sense doesn’t make it wrong, per se. Hone in on appears a mere 10 years after home in on, either because people immediately started mixing up the “m” and the “n” or because, as Merriam-Webster speculates, honing “figuratively involves a narrowing or sharpening of focus” and thus seems to fit. 

If you look at newspapers outside the United States, you’ll see that home in is overwhelmingly preferred, appearing worldwide with 70 percent more frequency than hone in, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Even so, in the US, usage is divided just about equally between home and hone.

Are the newspapers wrong, then? We have “homned” in on a problem.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to ‘Home in on’ or ‘hone in on’?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today