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November 5th, 2008

Home in vs. hone in / finished vs. done

by Barbara Wallraff

Peter Caplan, of Huntington Woods, Mich., writes: “‘Hone in’ or ‘home in’ -- or either one? Is ‘hone in’ now an acceptable way of saying that attention is being focused on a subject or there is movement toward an object? I see that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate gives it as an alternative for ‘home in,’ although that dictionary goes on to say that most usage experts will consider it a mistake. What’s your opinion? Can we use ‘hone in’ and ‘home in’ interchangeably? Can a mistake become so common that we just throw up our hands and accept it as proper usage, ‘irregardless’ of whether it technically makes sense? Am I becoming a prig?”

Dear Peter: No, we can’t; yes, it can; and no, you’re not. “Hone in” is a little gaffe that marks its user as a newcomer to the niceties of English. The original phrase is “home in.” It was first used in relation to missiles and military pilots, though anyone who has trouble understanding it should think of homing pigeons. “Hone” means “sharpen” and can apply either to physical things like knives or to abstract ones like skills. Admittedly, the idea of “sharpening in” to mean “approaching” isn’t ridiculous, whereas the idea of a missile going “home” to its target is unpleasant, to say the least. “Hone in” probably makes as much sense as “home in.” What’s wrong with it is just that it’s rooted in misunderstanding.

Dictionaries record such things with varying degrees of clarity and judgment. In this case, Merriam-Webster, as you say, defines “hone in” and adds a warning note. The American Heritage Dictionary, which used to be the place to turn for guidance on traditional usage, defines the phrase without comment. So does the Oxford English Dictionary Online, though its little U.S.-bred sister, the New Oxford American, doesn’t include it at all, suggesting it doesn’t recognize it as proper English.

Taken together, these points of view tell us we’ll have to think for ourselves. So here’s what I think: An awful lot of standard English doesn’t quite make sense, if we’re picky. The history of our language is full of blurring, borrowing and changing meanings. “Hone in” could have been the original phrase. But it 
wasn’t. There are still enough of us around who know it wasn’t that “home in” remains the better choice.

James Kuhnert, of State College, Pa., writes: “I lament the apparent passing of ‘finish’ and ‘finished’ from our vocabulary. Are we to be burdened with ‘I am done,’ ‘Are we done yet,’ etc.?”

Dear James: Oh, now. No one will think you’re strange if you say, “I am finished.” The word is just a bit formal, making it an acquired taste these days. Besides, “done” is no upstart. A 1771 letter by Thomas Jefferson includes this line: “One farther favor and I am done.”

May I therefore suggest that if you want to lament something (I’m not sure I do), you lament a general loss of formality, which has everyone calling strangers by their first names, people going out dressed like slobs, and on and on. “Done” instead of “finished” is the least of it!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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