LawProse Lesson #182: “Home in” and *”hone in.”

LawProse Lesson #182: “Home in” and *”hone in.”

Home in and *hone in. Home in is the correct phrase, meaning “to proceed toward (a target)” or “direct attention to (a thing, idea, or objective)” {after flying a few miles, the pigeon homed in on the cage} {in the response, the lawyer homed in on the affirmative defense in the criminal code}. The phrase arose in the 18th century, metaphorically referring to the action of a homing pigeon locating its destination. By the 20th century, the metaphor had stretched to cover artillery, aircraft, and missiles. Hone means “to sharpen or refine (a skill)” {with more courtroom experience, you will hone your oral persuasiveness} {hone your vocabulary by reading every night}. Note that as a verb, home is intransitive—meaning it can’t take an object. On the other hand, hone is transitive and requires an object. It would be unidiomatic to say you need to home a target. You home in on it. It’s just as unidiomatic to say you are going to *hone in on a skill. You hone the skill. *Hone in is an erroneous substitution that has appeared fairly recently but became quite common. So common, in fact, that Merriam Webster’s now defines *hone in as a separate headword: hone in, vi. To move toward or focus attention on an objective. Yet it follows the definition with a note on its misusage: “The few commentators who have noticed hone in consider it to be a mistake for home in. It may have arisen from home in by the weakening of the m sound to n or may perhaps simply be due to the influence of hone. Though it seems to have established itself in American English (and mention in a British usage book suggests it is used in British English too), your use of it especially in writing is likely to be called a mistake. Home in or in figurative use zero in does nicely.” Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 596 (11th ed. 2011). It’s so common that even reputable newspapers get it wrong: “For light-duty pickups, the team decided to hone in [read home in] on a priority they were hearing from truck customers. ‘It was all about fuel economy,’ Mr. Hegbloom said, explaining that buyers used to willingly sacrifice gas mileage for hauling capability. Now they wanted both.” Aaron M. Kessler, “Five Years Later, Chrysler’s Gamble on Ram Trucks Is Paying Off,” N.Y. Times, 18 Sept. 2014, at B1. The third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage marks the misuse of *hone in for home in at Stage 3 on the Language-Change Index (Widespread but . . .). Given the phrase’s treatment by Merriam Webster’s, it’s most likely advanced by now to Stage 4 (Ubiquitous but . . .). Regardless of the increasing use of *hone in, this is not a case of incipient language change. The phrase will always be both a faulty metaphor and a grammatical gaffe: “sharpen in” is simply nonsensical. So, to hone your writing and speech, remember the humble homing pigeon to home in on the right phrase. *Invariably inferior form. Further reading: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 412 (3d ed. 2011). Garner’s Modern American Usage 424–25 (3d ed. 2009). The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 12.3, at 282 (3d ed. 2013). Thanks to George Olson for suggesting this topic and for providing the example from The New York Times.

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