Q: Has “hone in” become an accepted phrase? Or is “home in” still correct?
A: Things haven’t changed, at least in the opinion of usage writers. The phrase is “home in.” Here’s how Pat explains these look-alikes in the new, third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (due out this month):
“HOME/HONE. As verbs, these are often confused. To home in on something is to zero in or concentrate on it. But to hone (not ‘hone in’) is to sharpen. Uncle Bertram honed his knife, then homed in on the problem: how to carve a roast suckling pig.”
Now, replacing our usage hat with our etymological hat, we should mention that “hone in” is homing in on acceptance among lexicographers, the people who put together our dictionaries.
The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, has an entry that defines “to hone in” this way: “To head directly for something; to turn one’s attention intently towards something. Usu. with on.”
The OED describes the usage as an apparent alteration of “to home in.” It traces the alteration to confusion caused by the somewhat similar meanings of the verbs “home” (to be guided to an objective) and “hone” (to refine a skill).
The dictionary has published references for “to hone in” going back more than four decades, including citations from the New York Times and the New York Review of Books.
The first OED citation is from George Plimpton’s 1966 book Paper Lion: “Then he’d fly on past or off at an angle, his hands splayed out wide, looking back for the ball honing in to intercept his line of flight.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have entries for “hone in” that also describe the verbal phrase as an alteration of “home in.” [2013 update: The new fifth edition of American Heritage agrees here.]
Merriam-Webster’s says “hone in” seems to have established itself in American English and made inroads in British English.
But the dictionary adds that using it, especially in writing, “is likely to be called a mistake.” We think so too. “Hone in on” is bad usage.