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.