'Hone in' versus 'home in on'

May 17, 2021
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Recently someone asked me, is the phrase home in on or hone in on something? As it turns out, this is a very common confusion!

The verb 'hone' comes to us from Old English hān meaning stone or rock, and means to sharpen something e.g. to hone a razor or to improve by careful attention or practice e.g. to hone one's skills.

The word 'home' comes from Old English hām meaning home or dwelling, and is related to the German Heim. As a verb, it means to go or return home and is usually used with respect to birds or other animals. As an adjective, it means returning home or having the ability to return home. You might think of a homing target or a homing pigeon.

The phrase itself uses the word home: home in on. It is most commonly associated with two senses:

  • a.  (of guided missiles, aircraft, etc.) to proceed, especially under control of an automatic aiming mechanism towards (an airport, fixed or moving target, etc.).

  • b.  to proceed towards, as if guided by an external force: *politicians eager to score points in a presidential race homing in on 'family values'. –WEST AUSTRALIAN, 1992.

So while you can hone (or sharpen) your skills, the phrase is home in on.

And just to muddy the water a little, you can also use the phrase zone in to refer to focusing attention to something.


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