A Word, Please: Time to home in, hone up usage skills

Here's an insightful observation: People don't like to sound stupid. In fact, that's the No. 1 concern of most of the people who ask me questions about language.

Grammar has the uncanny power to make everyone feel like a dimwit in a neon dunce cap. But if you're one of the millions who fear that usage errors make you look dumb, take heart: Our language trips up smart people too.

"Proton therapy makes it feasible to just hone in on the actual tumors."

That newspaper excerpt is a direct quotation from someone who, unlike me, knows what proton therapy is — a medical researcher on the cutting edge of cancer science speaking directly to a reporter. But not even someone with that much brainpower can sidestep the English language's innumerable make-you-look-dumb traps.

What, you may be wondering, is wrong with his sentence? It's the phrase "hone in on." What the speaker surely meant was "home in on."

The expression "to home in on something" is a pretty recent addition to the language, its first documented uses starting around 1920. That's when a magazine called Wireless World described a pilot "homing" toward a beacon. The quotation marks were included, suggesting the magazine writer was either coining the term or indicating it was still a novel usage.

Over the next 30 or so years, the term started to take shape in the phrase "home in on." At the time, it was confined mostly to military uses. But since then, the expression has found its way into the common lexicon, complete with this entry in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "home. verb. to proceed to or toward a source of radiated energy used as a guide. Missiles home in on radar."

Hone is a different word altogether. If you've ever heard someone say he wants to hone his skills, you already have a good idea of how it's used. To hone is to sharpen, which makes sense when you realize that the word first came into being as a noun meaning a whetstone. In modern English, it can also mean "to make more acute, intense or effective," according to Merriam-Webster's.

So the verbs home and hone are very different, yet it's easy to see how they get confused. After all, "home in on" is similar to "pinpoint," and "hone" is something you'd do to a knifepoint. The words not only sound alike, they also both emphasize precision.

Making matters worse: Most people don't think of "home" as a verb. When you hear or read the word, it's almost always a noun. "Welcome to our home." "They bought a home."

"Hone" is most recognizable as a verb (though its use as a noun to mean whetstone lives on). So when a speaker or writer is reaching for a verb, it's no surprise he'd inadvertently grab "hone" instead of "home."

In 1980, the subtle differences between hone and home proved too much for George Bush, whose use of "hone in on" earned sharp criticism from the pen of language columnist William Safire. Since then, people have continued to use "hone in on" erroneously, but not often enough to give the expression any real credibility.

"It may be that eventually 'hone in on' will become so common that dictionaries will begin to enter it as a standard phrase," write the editors of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (which, contrary to the name, is not a dictionary but a usage guide), "but its time is not yet. In the meantime, we recommend that you use 'home in on' instead.'"

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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