“Home In” vs. “Hone In”: What’s the Difference?

Puzzling over the commonly confused home in vs. hone in? With our grammar guidance, you can home in on the correct usage.

If your boss asks you to hone in on the best spot for a new retail outlet, what will you say? Will your perverse inner grammarian start a debate about home in vs. hone in? Or will you wisely get on with the task, just like when she emailed you to order stationary vs. stationery?

Of course, calling out your superior at work is never a good strategy, but learning grammar rules to sound smarter could help prompt that promotion. English offers endless examples of words that are mistakenly used for one another. Historic vs. historical, elicit vs. illicit, burnt vs. burned and envy vs. jealousy are commonly mixed to our own detriment. Sometimes, it’s a misunderstanding of definition. The unobtrusive discreet vs. discrete comes to mind. Or maybe home in vs. hone in presents an audible illusion similar to loose vs. lose.

Like flush out vs. flesh out, hone in vs. home in falls into that cloudy category of phrases that seem interchangeable but often are not.

Which is correct: hone in vs. home in?

Home in has longevity and grammar gatekeepers on its side. For most traditional linguists, home in is correct, and hone in is not accepted as a substitute. Despite frequent use and perhaps because of the pointed definition of hone (to sharpen or smooth), the standard has slid. If you’re invested in avoiding words you’re using wrong, or in this case, a phrase, use home in or even zero in before using hone in. References of hone in exist in established dictionaries, but Merriam-Webster calls it something of a creeping Americanism and an “alteration of home in.” The Chicago Manual of Style agrees, saying “this phrase is frequently misrendered hone in.” So when in doubt, home in prevails.

What does home in mean?

The original definition of home as an abode helps explain its later use as a verb. Prior to the mid-18th century, home existed only as a noun, but increasing mentions of homing pigeons, birds that return to the roost, offered a lasting metaphor. The original home or homing grew with time, and the phrase expanded to include home in. The first reference to “home in on” can be traced to an early-20th-century pigeon race in Australia. In more contemporary times, “to home in” means putting all your attention toward something (figuratively, homing in on a solution) or heading toward a target.

Examples of home in in a sentence

  • Finding an apartment can be difficult unless you home in on the right neighborhood.
  • I asked the executive team to home in on the three most salient points for the company mission statement.
  • Watching a dog as he homed in on hidden treats entertains even the most die-hard curmudgeon.

What does hone mean?

Despite the controversy of home in vs. hone in, hone itself is a real word. Go back a few hundred years, and hone means to smooth and sharpen a blade with a whetstone. Fast-forward to the 20th century, and hone gains a more metaphorical meaning: to sharpen skills or to refine or perfect something. In the ’60s, hone in as a phrase starts its vernacular leap as a substitute for home in. Among its early adopters: George H.W. Bush, who used “honing in on the issues” while running for president. Of course, it’s not a grammar rule that has changed, and traditionalists found his grammar lacking. Home in would have been correct.

Examples of hone in a sentence

  • My son’s company sends its executives to a training program to hone their management skills.
  • The best man delivered a finely honed speech at his cousin’s wedding.
  • The novelist spent hours trying to hone the plot of his latest crime thriller.

Tricks for remembering home in vs. hone in

For sure, hone in vs. home in falls into the confusing grammar rules category. Few people will even call you out for using hone in when home in is correct. And while it’s not among the more egregious grammar mistakes that make you look bad, the sticklers among us who prefer to avoid the vernacular error recall those homing pigeons with their singular mission. After all, a chef may hone incredible cooking skills while he homes in on where to build a destination restaurant.

Home in vs. hone in: Test your knowledge!

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Betsy Karetnick
Betsy is a lifestyle and media expert who writes about food, drink, flowers and gardening, as well as consumer issues. In 2004, she created The Portable Garden, a destination floral and event design company. An accomplished broadcaster, she was hired by Martha Stewart for her expertise in food and flowers, and she worked exclusively as a host on the channel for nearly its entire tenure on SiriusXM. She also specializes in financial journalism and started her career at Dow Jones, CBS Marketwatch and WNET.