Word Clash: “Home in” versus “Hone in”

As a writer and an editor, it is my duty to hone my vocabulary to best home in my message. In fact, I have a section of this website dedicated to the honing of words: The Whetstone. Should the words I use cause confusion, what use of a writer am I? 

I admit that I have overseen this clash of commonly confused words often in my career. In fact, it took me three read-throughs of web content done at my work before I caught the misuse of “hone in” over “home in.” 

These two words’ (technically four if you include the pesky prepositions) are used interchangeably in common parlance – that to refer to something “zeroing in” or moving directly to the core of an idea or an issue. For example, you may hear someone say, “Let’s home in on the answer”, whereas you may hear others say, “Let’s hone in on the answer.” 

Which is correct? When we home in on the definitions of these two verbs, we will hone our understanding of their correct uses. Let us examine this duel:

Homing in on the source of the duel

Why do these words sharing the same preposition and separated by neighbouring letters clash? To see where this duel of commonly confused words starts, we must define the two combating verbs. 

“Home” as a verb means “to return home” or, more pertinent to this clash, to “move toward an objective by following a beam or landmark.” Carrier pigeons home to their lofts; a SCUD missile homes to its target. 

“To hone” is to “sharpen with or as if with a hone.” The word is greatly applicable to the branding and imaging of this website: you would hone a sword as to sharpen it. 

The clash starts when the preposition “in” is thrown into the mix. The clash is further complicated because our human ear’s mistake of \m\ for \n\ when “home in” or “hone in” is uttered. This clash can be categorised as an eggcorn. 

Witnessing the clash on the battlefield

Knowing the definition of these two words, we can see how this clash plays out in the battlefield, i.e. in writing:

  • “Comparing a range of circuits helps you hone in and identify a circuit’s specific usage.”
  • “Identifying an angle will allow students to create a storyline and hone in on their message.” 
  • “Either way, you’ll definitely want to hone in on your employability to increase your chances.” ***

In each of the skirmishes (i.e. examples) we can see that home or home in would be the better word choices. Actually, they would be better than better: they would be correct.

In the first example, comparing a selection of power circuits does not help you sharpen and identify a circuit’s usage. Rather, it should say that comparing circuits helps you home in, or zero in, and identify a circuit’s specific usage.

For the second example, identifying an angle will allow students to home in on their message – or zero in on their message. You could argue that this sentence is saying the identity of an angle is sharpening the students’ messages. To achieve this, though, some tweaking is required: “…Identifying an angle will allow students… hone their message.” 

Finally, for example three, you definitely want to home in on, or focus on, your employability so you have a better chance of being hired. To give “hone” a seat at the table in this example, you would need to tell the person to hone their skills so that they are more employable. 

Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

Hone your writing

In the table below, I correct the three examples using “home in” in place of “hone in.” As a peace offering to “hone”, I rewrite the sentences so that the verb is correctly used.

“Comparing a range of circuits helps you home in and identify a circuit’s specific usage.”“Comparing a range of circuits helps you hone your understanding of a circuit’s usage.”
“Identifying an angle will allow students to create a storyline and home in on their message.”“Identifying an angle will allow students to create a storyline and hone their message.”
“Either way, you’ll definitely want to home in (focus) on your employability to increase your chances.”“Either way, you’ll definitely want to hone your skills to make you more employable.” 

The clash, like all others pitting commonly confused words against each other, between home in and hone in is a duel exposed in writing more so than in speech. Hopefully, now, you are equipped to put the words in their proper place.

*** Latter two examples taken from https://ludwig.guru/s/hone+in.

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