The difference between hone in or home in is often misunderstood, but this guide will clear it up and show you the correct phrase.
Certain words and phrases are commonly confused in the English language, and choosing whether to use hone in or home in is one of those unclear moments. I’ll admit that I’m one of the writers who previously used the wrong phrase. And when a lot of people use the wrong version in speech and the written word, it’s easy to get misled about the right phrase to use.
Once I found out I was using the wrong phrase, I learned the correct usage and the story behind it. Now I always make a point to pick the right one.
Hopefully, this guide will help you do the same, but to keep it less confusing, you’ll need to keep a close eye every time I switch from “m” to “n” in “home” to “hone.”
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Is It Hone In Or Home In?
I used to say “hone in,” but “home in” is the version that is technically correct. Yes, “hone” is a word, but the problem comes when you add “in” to make it a phrase and when the meaning you're likely trying to convey is “home in.”
When you’re trying to say you’re getting closer to a target or you’re putting a closer focus on something, the correct phrase is “home in.” For example, I’m homing in on the answer to your grammar question.
What Is The Difference Between Hone In And Home In?
In this case, “home” is being used as a verb, meaning to move toward a goal. People say “home in” to say you’re closing in on your goal and getting closer to your target. It could also mean you're going to focus attention on something.
“Hone” is different, because this verb refers to sharpening something or improving skills.
“Hone in” can be considered an eggcorn, which is a word or term that people use by mistake when meaning a word or term with a similar sound. In other words, you might say “eggcorn” as a mistake when you mean “acorn.” In this case, people seemed to start saying “hone in” when they meant “home in.”
When to Use Home In
If you replace the words with similar ones that have the same meaning, it helps clear up confusion. Basically, it makes sense to “home in,” which is to say you're going to “zero in” or “close in” on a target or goal.
It doesn’t make as much sense to say you’re going to “hone in,” which would technically mean “sharpen in” on the target or goal. Nonetheless, you could drop the “in” and say you’re honing your skills.
Where Does Home In Come From?
“Home” as a verb is used in instances of something finding its endpoint, so it has been used to refer to things like homing pigeons and missiles. Why is the word “home” used in these instances? That comes from animals that are able to leave a spot and then return home using their own instincts and abilities.
Merriam-Webster's dictionary notes that the noun form of home goes back to Old English but that the verb form is newer. It has found evidence of the verb going back to the 1700s when people used it specifically to refer to animals for about a century, most often to refer to homing pigeons.
In the 20th century people used the verb to describe pilots, then vehicles and missiles, and then in the 1950s broadened to the figurative use of any person or thing going toward or focusing on a goal.
“Hone in” is dated to the 1960s. The verb hone goes back longer to the 1700s when people used it to refer specifically to sharpening something with a whetstone. In the 1900s, it began to refer to perfecting or refining something.
What Do Dictionaries and Usage Guides Say?
Part of the reason for the confusion is that language can change, and we don’t always follow proper rules of grammar when we speak or write. When a word or phrase that’s not technically grammatically correct becomes common or popular enough in society, sometimes this form is adopted by dictionaries.
Case in point: the Merriam-Webster dictionary added “hone in” while recognizing that “home in” is the more common and accepted form. Nonetheless, the reasoning the dictionary gave for adding “hone in” is that there is significant evidence of its common usage. Also, it noted that these phrases are both fairly new and that most people aren’t overly familiar with this use of “home” as a verb.
The American Heritage Dictionary also listed “hone in” while noting that it can be used because it is common but that it tends to be seen as a mistake.
In North America, it’s often considered okay to use “hone in.” It may be seen as a mistake, especially worldwide, and it’s not technically correct. Yet it’s so common that it’s accepted, and you’ll even see its use in formal applications.
For example, during his Presidential campaign, George Bush Sr. used the form “honing in.”
Final Word on Hone In or Home In
Basically, in modern English in North America, you can get away with saying either “home in” or “hone in” unless you're talking to a grammar stickler.
But if you want the correct English usage, go with “home in.” This is the version that refers to moving toward a goal or destination, which is most likely the meaning you're trying to get across.
FAQs About Hone In or Home In
Do you home in or hone in on something?
Technically, you home in on something. This is the phrase that correctly conveys the meaning of closing in on a target or goal, whereas “hone” has a slightly different meaning.
What is a synonym for hone in?
Since “hone in” is the less acceptable form that’s often viewed as grammatically incorrect, it may be best to use a synonym, especially in formal applications. Good options are to use “home in” or “zero in.”
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