Red Pen Diaries: Honing Our Homing Skills

Red Pen Diaries: Advice and Observations on Writing and the English LanguageIn which we home in on a peculiar use of "hone."

You've probably heard of homing pigeons or homing beacons. The birds are able to navigate their way back to their nests; likewise, the beacons enable people to find or track (aka "home in on") a target.

You are no doubt also aware of the phrase "honing one's skills." Hone means to sharpen something, whether it's a knife or your ability to hit fade-away jump shots.

Unfortunately, "hone in on," usually meaning "to focus on," is a construction now in widespread use. I have seen some commentators (and even some reference books) defend this usage, but I maintain that it never makes any grammatical sense to "sharpen in" on something. If you mean to say "focus on," my advice would be to simply use the words "focus on." In addition to being unimpeachably correct, you save yourself from using the unnecessary word "in."

Incorrect: "Let's hone in on the results of this TPS report."

Correct: "No one at the meeting ever was able to home in on the real problem."

If E.T. had accidentally phoned hone, the mothership never would have been able to home in on his location.


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