Does a plane home in on a target or hone in on it? Does a musician hone her skills or home them? Are these two verbs interchangeable or do they have discrete meanings? Today we explore the origins and uses of hone and home.
Hone entered English as a noun for a pointed rock used as a landmark. In the 1400s, it began to be used in reference to a whetstone for sharpening razors and other cutting tools. A few centuries later, hone picked up the verb meaning “to sharpen on a hone.” The sharpening element took figurative shape in the now widely used verb sense from the early 1900s: “to make more acute or effective; improve; perfect.” This is the sense invoked when we talk of improving one’s skills, as in “The pianist honed his articulation with hours of practice.”
The word home also entered English as a noun; it first referred to a dwelling, house, or shelter. In the mid-1800s it began to be used as a verb meaning “to go or return home,” popping up frequently in discussion of homing pigeons. In the early 1900s, home picked up the more specific sense of “to proceed, especially under control of an automatic aiming mechanism, toward a specified target, as a plane, missile, or location.”
So the simple answer is that a person, bird, or aircraft homes in on a target, but a person hones his or her skills. Style guides urge writers to observe this distinction and avoid using hone in altogether. The not-so-simple answer is that the meaning of a word is dictated by its usage, and people use these terms in overlapping and sometimes fused ways. As a result, some dictionaries include a definition of hone that borrows the target theme from home: “to focus attention on an objective.” And some include a definition home that is synonymous with hone.
Nevertheless, to keep your writing clean and clear, it is a good idea to steer clear of hone in.