A few home truths

This morning, I was perusing my bank’s website when I noticed this:

I really like my bank. They know more about numbers than I ever will. But when it comes to words, they have a thing or two to learn. Here, they’ve confused “hone” with “home” – a particularly unfortunate mistake in the context, since it kind of undermines their ability to home in on said detail.

Hone or home?

“Hone” means sharpen. In its literal sense, it is usually used in relation to knives or other weapons. (He hones the blade of his sword.) More often, though, we use it figuratively to mean refine or improve. (She hones her writing skills.)

“Home (in on)” means move towards or aim at. Again, this could be literal (The lion homes in on its prey) or figurative (We have managed to home in on the problem.)     

How to remember the difference

I have two options for you: you can picture either a homing missile or a homing pigeon. You can also combine the two ideas by picturing this WWI spy pigeon:

Whichever you choose, the idea is the same. Just imagine a flying object that identifies a target and then moves towards it. Homing pigeons home in on a location; homing missiles home in on an enemy.  

So wrong that it’s right?

Sometimes, incorrect usages become so common that the grammar gods start accepting them as correct. (TIME magazine ran a great little article about this phenomenon recently.) Someday, perhaps, “hone in on” will be one such usage. Here’s what Oxford Dictionaries has to say about the matter:

The traditional form for the verb sense “move accurately towards a target” is home in on, not hone in on. More than a third of the total citations for this expression in the Oxford English Corpus are for hone in on, however, and in the US this form has become common even in mainstream writing. Nevertheless, hone in on is still regarded by many as incorrect.

“Hone in on” has a long way to go before it is accepted by grammarians. For now, if you’re a person (or a hugely powerful financial institution) who wants to be taken seriously, you should try to remember the difference between “hone” and “home”.