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“hone in” vs. “home in”

Why does sports media persist in the use of the phrase “hone in” instead of “home in”. Traditionally, a missile homes in (not hones in) on a target. Hone means “to sharpen.” The verb home means “to move toward a goal” or “to be guided to a target.”

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If you consider a phenomenon known since 1965 to be "traditional", traditionally, a missile hones in on a target.

Remek October 5, 2011, 7:59am

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In common with the majority of the English speaking world I do not consider Merriam-Webster a definitive, nor even proper, source of information on the language.
The use of "hone in" instead of "home in" is erroneous.

Hairy Scot October 5, 2011, 9:33am

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Let's get back to your original question: why does sports media persist in the use of the phrase “hone in” instead of “home in”?

Because they can. Because nobody cared/cares about this, and something they may have started as a word-joke is so widely spread, that it's accepted as the norm. The language is alive, and that's just another example of its slow but sure evolution.

Remek October 6, 2011, 1:03am

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Surely evolution should lead to improvement, not the dumbing down and debasement of the language by over simplification and erroneous usage.
The type of evolution you seem to espouse will eventually lead to us all being a bunch of hip hopping jive talking purveyors of text speak.

Hairy Scot October 6, 2011, 9:58am

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Should the media, whether in print, on radio, or on television, not have a responsibility to foster proper use of the language?
"Hone in" is wrong. If the phrase had some humourous or literary merit then it might be acceptable, but as it stands it is not.

Hairy Scot October 6, 2011, 10:27am

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Because the sports media aren't exactly known for high intellect.

cnelsonpublic October 6, 2011, 5:41pm

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@Hairy Scot: don't confuse me for their defender. I'm just stating the fact... I'm not in the position to judge the evolution for the direction its taking, either.

Remek October 6, 2011, 7:34pm

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Remek, Perfect Pedant, you two have made me smile today. Did either of you actually read the M-W link? It's ironic that Remek's posting of it actually supports the notion that "hone in" is considered incorrect. A further irony, in Perfect Pedant's rejection of all things M-W, he is rejecting something that supports his own argument.

porsche October 7, 2011, 4:59am

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Thanks for pointing that out.
I'll admit I tend to dismiss M-W out of hand.
In future I shall look before I leap.

Hairy Scot October 7, 2011, 8:57am

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@porsche, Hairy Scot
I too am guilty of of being dismissive of M-W.
Thank you Porsche for pointing us all in the right direction.

Hairy Scot October 7, 2011, 9:00am

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"Home in" is the correct version. I had never heard of "hone in" until I saw it here yesterday. It's HOME IN not HONE... You can hone your skills but you home in on a target.

I have a pilot's license and worked in aviation for many years ... we have homing beacons ... not honing.

home (v.) - 1765, "to go home" from home (n.). Meaning "be guided to a destination by radio signals, etc. (of missiles, aircraft, etc.) is from 1920; it had been used earlier in reference to pigeons (1862). Related: Homed; homing. O.E. had hamian "to establish in a home".

AnWulf October 7, 2011, 11:56am

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truth be told, someone in the press office probably had a deadline for an article about some sporting event, or other. In the rush to make the deadline... someone mistakenly pressed the wrong key on the keyboard. M and N laying just next to one another as they do, is not an impossible error to have made. Thereafter, other journalists, poking fun at the journalist's mistake, and the remainder of the English speaking world being, largely, dunces at their own language, no one caught it until you did ;-D

evath October 8, 2011, 10:14am

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You could be right!


Hairy Scot October 8, 2011, 12:10pm

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I don't normally defense sports casters, but "hone in on" just sounds more edumicated. And I think the point might be "getting closer and closer to the target". You "hone in" on your target by mentally sharpening your aim. First you look at that part of the field; then at that particular player; then his hands. Plus, can you "home in" on third base? That could be mighty confusing for some ball players.

But to hone in on the question, please remember we're talking about sports casters and Dubya Bush. Seriously, what do you expect?

Tom in TX November 13, 2011, 8:28am

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>>Because the sports media aren't exactly known for high intellect.<<

And their readers, even less so!

Bob Sheidler November 19, 2011, 5:18am

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@Bob Sheidler
I was actually referring to TV sports commentators.
Have never seen this particular goof in print.
Maybe depends on the newspapers one reads.

Hairy Scot November 19, 2011, 7:00am

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You know, I used to think of "hone in on" as some kind of metaphor, comparing the convergence of several possible paths on a single locus, with the sharpening of a blade, the thicker metal tapering to a fine edge. After reading this and researching further, I now think that such a comparison is utter nonsense. Clearly it's "home".

porsche November 19, 2011, 8:51am

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This is one of the neatest examples of language evolution that I have seen. There are a few excellent academic treatments of the subject available, one being here.
I had never heard the expression "hone in on" until the past two years, and have heard it used (so far) only by under thirties, who have never heard of a radio homing beacon. To them, homing in made no sense. Unlike the dumbed-down use of unique, which has destroyed the value of a word that was "unique" in it's meaning (or, perhaps, singular), the morphing of home to hone, while almost certainly coming about through misunderstanding, has some logic behind it. There is no harm here, only a little confusion and fun discussion, until home in is finally vanquished in the USA. From there, who kows where it will go, but my vote is that it will prevail throughout the English speaking world.

@campobello December 27, 2011, 10:53pm

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It is more like downgrading than evolution and there is nothing neat about it.
Just another sorry example of how acceptance of erroneous usage is leading to debasement and dumbing down of the language.

Mediator December 28, 2011, 8:15am

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"It came to public attention and gained some notoriety when George Bush used it in the presidential campaign of 1980 — he spoke of “honing in on the issues”."

The fact that Bush used it is surely reason enough for the rest of the English speaking world to avoid it like the plague.

Perfect Pedant December 28, 2011, 9:39am

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If we kept away from every word that Bush used, we wouldn't hav many words left.

AnWulf December 29, 2011, 12:49am

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HOME in comes from HOMING MISSILES homing in on their target. HONE in means to sharpen or to finely adjust something. You can hone in on a radio frequency but you HOME in on a target.

rwsmith February 28, 2012, 10:14am

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Surely the reason for this fairly humble mistake is obvious? It's pronunciation.

It is based entirely on the phonetic proximity of the "m" in "home" with the "n" in "in".

Hardly catastrophic.

JJMBallantyne February 28, 2012, 11:09pm

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I agree, had to think on it a bit. I feel the phrase does originate with the concept of homing in a target, but I like the nuance of hone as sharpening a focus or fine tuning something. Even an archer adjusting his aim to get closer to his target on successive shots could be said to be "honing in" on it. In any particular situation each phrase is probably somewhat more appropriate than the other. Thank goodness for language evolution, otherwise we'd all be speaking Proto-Indo-European or something and life would be boring.

neuticle May 4, 2012, 9:03am

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Arg! The only honing an archer does is to sharpen the tips of his arrows to inflict maximum damage. Then the process of hitting the target involves homing in on the proper combination of elevation, Kentucky windage, and lead time on moving targets. This how guidence systems in missles function, by progessive correction of external factors to achieve the best approximation necessary to home in on the target.

djb January 21, 2014, 8:08am

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Three and a bit years too late, but I've just noticed this from HS - "In common with the majority of the English speaking world I do not consider Merriam-Webster a definitive, nor even proper, source of information on the language."

I would be flabbergasted if even one percent of the English-speaking world outside the US had even heard of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (which is not the same as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary). And I can only assume HS has some sort of telepathic powers that he has such privileged information about the opinions of his language fellows - I certainly don't remember being consulted. But I suspect that anything which included the name Webster would fall foul of his approval.

I have to say that the MWDEU is one of the best book purchases have ever made, and the reason I bought it is precisely because I didn't want a 'definitive' book that tells me what I should say, but that one that tells me in a non-moralising way how certain expressions have been used by canonical writers in the past, how they are used by educated speakers and writers today, and how they have been commented on over the centuries - how that's somehow not 'proper' eludes me. And they often do it in a humorous way (as with the home/hone in entry).

I think the reason people like me like it is because it gives us the information we need to make our own choices rather than laying down the law. In the UK there are people enough like Neville Gwynne (Gwynne's Grammar) and Simon Heffer (Strictly English) who do that. In contrast to them, MWDEU is a breath of fresh air.

Warsaw Will January 21, 2014, 11:02am

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Let's not get personal.
As you know by now I do on occasion like to be a bit naughty, or even provocative. :-))

Unfortunately with printed text it is often difficult to convey mood or emotion, and sometimes even intent.
"Tongue in cheek" is certainly one of the more difficult to convey.

In some forums (or even fora) the ability to use graphic emoticons can be of great help in conveying what is not always evident in the the text.

Hairy Scot January 21, 2014, 11:17am

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@Warsaw Will,

I was on the internet a few months ago looking for grammar tests to see whether I retained the stuff or not (I do this from time to time) and found an online test of ten (English grammar) questions from Gwynne. The last question was about the gerundive in Latin grammar. I was vexed by the stupidity of its inclusion.

Jasper January 21, 2014, 5:42pm

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@HS - I realise that, and was trying to be a bit tongue in cheek, even provocative in return. Sorry if you took offence, but if you will make rude remarks (however tongue in cheek) about my favourite usage book (that's usage as in how language is used, not as it should be used) you shouldn't be too surprised if I make a riposte. :)

@Jasper - this is from my blog:

"Gwynne's test has twelve questions. Six questions, half the quiz, involve identifying the part of speech and the function of two words, near and nowhere, in six different contexts - nothing controversial here, but quite technical and rather a large proportion of the quiz, I would have thought. One was about Latin, not English; one (about the use of a defining relative clause) was OK but a bit silly; and one was unremarkable. Which left three controversial ones:

Which is correct?
a. Do you see who I see?
b. Do you see whom I see?

Which is correct?
a. He had fewer men than in the previous campaign
b. He had less men than in the previous campaign

Which of these lists is more traditionally correct and technically perfect?
a. Firstly…, secondly…, thirdly…
b. First ..., secondly, ... thirdly

And of course the 'correct' answers were b, a and b. Now nobody I know would say 'Do you see whom I see', but that doesn't seem to bother Mr B. I know that on occasion in informal English I say 'less people, as do many other educated speakers, but Mr G doesn't seem to allow for different registers either. I know that in the last one many people prefer b, but it has nothing to do with 'technical perfection', but with style preferences and convention. It's one thing that Mr G didn't seem to recognise 'firstly' as an adverb, which it has been for about five hundred years, even if not used much, but he doesn't seem to realise that second can be an adverb, (She came second in the race) and thus that en even more perfect solution (if people are so worried about extra syllables) might simply be 'First ..., second..., third', (the preferred solution in many modern style guides), an option he didn't give us.

I'm currently working on a blog post on 'first(ly), second(ly) etc. Meanwhile here's my take on 'Mr Gwynne, sex and gender':

Warsaw Will January 22, 2014, 8:05am

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I seem (dimly) to recall teaching "less" vs "fewer", and disagreeing with the materials provided (Murphy/Hewings??). There are certainly bigger fish to fry when it comes to style, word-choice, and gettting the message across clearly, and whether the message is at all relevant and worthwhile.
Mr Gwynne must have been speaking "per caput" (thru his head - as in "per ardua ad astra" - hard-work will get you a Vauxhall).
De gerundivo non est disputandum.

jayles January 22, 2014, 2:54pm

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@Warsaw WIll,

Yes, that question with "first, secondly, thirdly" confused me because it said "traditionally correct" and "technically perfect"; those two pieces seemed to contradict each other because "b" would be "traditionally correct" but "a" would be "technically perfect". Another question I remember was one on appositives, and I read in the comments that it actually is ambiguous, and at the time, I did not have a perfect understanding of restrictive appositives.

Jasper January 22, 2014, 6:53pm

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@Jasper - He says - 'This is because “first” is one of the relatively few adjectives which do not change their form when they become adverbs, unlike "second" and "third". The first bit is OK: "first" is the usual adverb from the ordinal number "first" (although a second adverb "firstly", only used in lists, has existed for about five hundred years). But then he seems to be suggesting that there are no adverbs "second", "third" etc. - thus justifying the use of -ly words for secondly etc. But of course that's nonsense. -'David came first and Peter came second'. Here both 'first' and 'second' are adverbs.

Nearly all authorities nowadays consider all three possibilities grammatically correct; the choice is one off style, that's all. For example the American Heritage Dictionary, not the most radical of dictionaries says:

'Usage Note: It is well established that either first or firstly can be used to begin an enumeration: Our objectives are, first (or firstly), to recover from last year's slump. Any succeeding items should be introduced by words parallel to the form that is chosen, as in first . . . second . . . third or firstly . . . secondly . . . thirdly.'

But this is a style issue, not a grammatical one. I have no problem with people saying 'first, secondly, thirdly', if they want, but I do when they say my choice, usually 'firstly, secondly, thirdly' (which I think is rather more common in British English) is wrong.

Warsaw Will January 22, 2014, 11:37pm

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Yes     No