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I've heard people say "Home in on something", but I've also heard others say "Hone in on something".

Which is the correct expression, and what is the etymology of these?

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Interesting, I was playing a game of Carcassonne with friends and an argument ensued when I said I was going to horn in on a city. They insisted that I meant hone in. I said no, I definitely mean to "participate without invitation." – ghoppe Jul 4 '11 at 6:15
up vote 15 down vote accepted

Home in is correct. It bears resemblance to the concept of "home" in that the projectile (or a figurative counterpart) involved is getting to where it is meant to go. However, the variation "hone in" has increasingly been accepted to mean the same thing.

Also see definition #21 here of home, and this very helpful study on the two commonly confused expressions.

This reports the following:

Traditionally, a missile homes in (not hones in) on a target. Hone means "to sharpen." The verb home means "to move toward a goal" or "to be guided to a target." But some usage guides (see notes below) now recognize hone in on as an acceptable alternative to home in on.

An Ngram illustrates the wider usage of "home in on" than "hone in on", at least in current literature.

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As in a homing pigeon -- I thought so, and it's my preferred version of the phrase. – pavium Jul 4 '11 at 2:54
And if I ever hear anyone say "honing pigeon", I'll ask them what material is sharpened by the pigeon. – pavium Jul 4 '11 at 3:03
@pavium very sharp comment there! – Thursagen Jul 4 '11 at 12:22

@zenbike ... I was a Soldier and I never heard "hone in on target" while I was on active duty.

From the OED on my computer and online:

verb [ no obj. ]
1. (of an animal) return by instinct to its territory after leaving it: a dozen geese homing to their summer nesting grounds.
• (of a pigeon bred for long-distance racing) fly back to or arrive at its loft after being released at a distant point.
2. (home in on) move or be aimed toward (a target or destination) with great accuracy: more than 100 missiles were launched, homing in on radar emissions.
• focus attention on: a teaching style that homes in on what is of central importance for each student.

From etymology online:

home (v.) 1765, "to go home", from home (n.). Meaning "be guided to a destination by radio signals, etc. (of missiles, aircraft, etc.) is from 1920; it had been used earlier in reference to pigeons (1862). Related: Homed; homing. O.E. had hamian "to establish in a home".

You can hone your skills but you home in on a target.

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Homing requires a signal drawing you to a destination. As in a laser designator on the target, or a source of radio emissions. If there is no such source, how do you home in on the target? – zenbike Feb 24 '12 at 16:22
No, homing does not require a signal. The meaning began with homing pigeons ... they certainly did not (and still do not) have a radio signal to home in on (year 1862, see the etymology online info above). ... When you find your way home (home in) do you need a signal? I hope not. – AnWulf Mar 17 '12 at 5:08

There's an article in World Wide Words on just this subject. To summarize, apparently "home in" is the original correct usage, but "hone in on" is in wider use. Technically "home in" is the correct usage and "hone in" is not, but the majority of the public will likely think "home in" to be a mistake and that it should be "hone in."

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So the argument that usage is more important than strict definition, comes to the fore, and I'll have to get used to it. – pavium Jul 4 '11 at 2:59
On matters like this, it comes down to if one wishes to be right or if one would rather people to think them to be right. Of course, the latter runs the risk of dealing with people who know better. – UtopiaLtd Jul 4 '11 at 3:07
Looking at NGram American English only (Brits hardly ever make this mistake), it seems 25% of 50,000 usages are for hone in. I'm appalled, but even in the US that's considerably less than "the majority of the public". – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 4:35
As both are arguably colloquialisms whose property of correctness is based in the usage of the phrase, why is either more correct? I promise you that no projectile has a "home" before it is fired, and that a while a homing pigeon does, before that property of some pigeons to always return to a nesting place was known, it would have been quite unusual to call it such. My experience of the phrase to "hone in on" is its common usage in military company. It means to bring an edge closer to perfection. Used in the context of mission or job performance, it means to sharpen your ability to perform. – zenbike Jul 4 '11 at 7:43
@zenbike: To hone means to sharpen. It doesn't make any sense to speak of honing in on something - that's why it's "incorrect", and World Wide Words is simply mistaken in claiming it's the more common version. – FumbleFingers Dec 16 '11 at 18:45

Hone per se means to sharpen a tool/instrument or figuratively implies improving the efficiency of something whereas home in on someone means to target someone directly. E.g., "The finance minister is homing in on Uber and its ilk after induction of 10% surcharge on the 'super-rich' in the budget." On the flip side, tax benefits could hone investments.

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