Pigeons 'home in,' but feel free to 'hone in' instead

Apr 30, 2017

A listener recently wrote an email about how everyone in her industry says "hone in" instead of "home in."

"Does this equivocation mean that it’s perfectly That’s-What-They-Say acceptable to understand ‘hone in’ as ‘home in,’ and to hear it without cringing?” she asked. 

Our own Professor Anne Curzan had already put a lot of thought into “home in” and “hone in” before we received this email. In fact, she admits that knowing which was correct used to be a point of pride. 

“If I was copy-editing, and I saw someone say ‘we’re going to hone in on that question’ or ‘hone in on that topic’, I would underline it or strike it through, and put ‘home in’ and feel just a little bit proud,” she admits.

But Curzan later called her pride into question while reading a graduate student’s exam. In the exam, the student wrote, “a tutor might home in on an argument which runs counter to the tutor’s own belief.”

“I read that sentence and thought that ‘home in’ looks weird. And then I knew that the only reason [the student] put ‘home in’ was because in an earlier draft I had underlined ‘hone in’ and written ‘home in,’” Curzan says.

So she began to wonder if her correction had become persnickety, and perhaps even less standard than “hone in.”

Historically, the construction is “home in.” It comes from homing pigeons, and their ability to find their way home no matter where they’re released. Starting in the 1920s, “homing in on a target” became a way to talk about planes and other military operations that use radio signals and other signs to find a target.

Then around the 1950s, “home in” became a metaphorical way talk about focusing in on something. But within about 10 years, people started using “hone in” to mean the same thing.

Frankly, this seems like a logical shift. “Hone” means to sharpen something like a knife or a skill. So hen you hone in on something, you’re sharpening your focus.

“Hone in” is also found in plenty of published works. Curzan searched Google Books from 1800 to 2008 and found that although “home in on” is still more common, “hone in” is rising dramatically. To top it off, two thirds of the American Heritage usage panel voted in favor of using “hone in” in 2015.

Therefore, given the evidence presented here, we hereby deem “hone in” as That’s What They Say acceptable. That's about as official as it gets.

Are there other phrases that make you do a double-take? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.