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