Q&A: Hone sweet home

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Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation… This week, which word is correct?

Q: Hi guys, can you clear up whether it’s “to hone” in on something, or “home in”?
A: Not until you tell us which one you think it is.

Q: I’m not telling. Your smug vitriol scares me.
A: Then we’re not telling you.

Q: Well this is awkward.
A: Yep.

Q: Okay, I think it’s “home in”, but my friend is adamant it’s “hone”.
A: Well, breathe a sigh of relief, because our missile of smugness has bypassed you and is currently ‘homing’ in on your friend. That’s right, just like a missile (or a pigeon) ‘homes in’, so too does the phrase.

Q: So why do people think it’s “hone”?
A: Well, we’re getting into ‘eggcorn’ territory here – the odd term for phrases that are wrong, but COULD be correct. After all, to hone is to sharpen, e.g. “to hone one’s skills”. So if you “hone in on something” you could be thinking you’re sharpening your focus etc. And something else is also happening with this particular case.

Q: What’s that?
A: English is an ever-evolving language, and the use of “hone in” is becoming more common – especially in North America. It’s a ‘corruption’ that has taken hold – sending it mainstream. After all, homing pigeons aren’t all too common these days, and “hone” as a verb is trending more and more. Way back in 1980, George Bush used “hone in” in a speech, and it’s even made it to American dictionaries in the past decade.

Q: Ah, so, um, am I still right?
A: Yeah, here in Australia (and the whole world, for now), it’s still correct to use “home in”. Australia’s best resource, the Macquarie Dictionary, simply lists “hone in” as a confusion of the correct usage. So, for now, make yourself at “home”. But know that “hone” is homing in on it fast!

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