Grammar A House Is Not a Hone |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

A House Is Not a Hone

When a spurious phrase gets too prevalent, we language watchdogs start barking. Today we’ll discuss two errant expressions that make us growl and howl.

We start with hone in, an all-too-common faux idiom. Since we first alerted you to this solecism sixteen months ago, it has only gained momentum. Here are some recent online examples: “Psychologists hone in on what not to wear.” “Cities hone in on the promise of big data.” “Researchers hone in on autism-causing genes.”

The correct term is home in. To home in, like zero in, is to focus on, get something firmly in your sights, get to the heart of the matter. The home in home in refers not to a residence, but to a goal or target. The word is also used this way in sentences like We’re home free and He drove his point home. In the game of baseball you achieve your goal by reaching home plate.

In the late twentieth century, hone in gained a foothold. In this era of multitasking, it isn’t hard to see why. The letters m and n look and sound similar when one is distracted. Not only that, hone in almost makes sense. To hone is to sharpen a blade. By extension, it means to improve, refine, or perfect: Constant practice helped him hone his writing skills.

So, some argue, why couldn’t hone in mean “to sharpen (narrow) one’s focus”? That rationale seems like a stretch. Home in has been in circulation for decades;hone in is an inferior imitation.

Our second culprit is a hard road to hoe, which a lot of people say when they mean a hard row to hoe (i.e., a difficult task). Like hone in, the phrase a hard road to hoe almost seems acceptable, but it falls apart upon closer inspection.

The metaphorical row in hard row to hoe is a more or less straight line of growing plants. A farmer uses his hoe to cultivate the soil and keep it weed-free so the plants may thrive. A road handles a lot of foot traffic and takes a beating from bicycles and motorized vehicles. No one but a lunatic would want to hoe a road.

Amazingly, hone in and hard road to hoe have their supporters. But those who defend these aberrations on the basis of “close enough” are doing a disservice not only to the language but to themselves. They should aim higher.


Pop Quiz

The sentences below are “almost” acceptable. Can you fix them? Answers are below.

1. Most athletes deport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back with them a terrible petulance, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredulous.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s Judge Judy and executioner.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Most athletes comport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back with them a terrible pestilence, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredible.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s judge, jury, and executioner.

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9 responses to “A House Is Not a Hone”

  1. Susan L. says:

    I have been guilty of using both of these abberations. I’m so glad to receive your correction. Thank you!

  2. Jim F. says:

    ” She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s judge, jury, and executioner.”

    It seems to me that this should be “as if she were …”

    • Strictly speaking, you are correct. Since we were trying to be funny, we went for a more colloquial tone. If we’d said “as if she were,” suddenly we’d be writing a treatise, not making a joke.

      The subjunctive is almost dead here in the U.S., and it’s even deader in England.

  3. Sawon H. says:

    Interesting! I have thought all along that “hone in” is the right usage, not knowing there is such a thing as “home in.”

  4. Dennis T. says:

    Just wanted to tell you that your columns are right on and I love them. It’s nice to know someone else is as concerned about the proper use of the English language as I am.

  5. Kathy M says:

    Please please PLEASE make a post on “supposed to”! So many people use the phrase “suppose to”, I wonder if they’re deaf and can’t hear speakers saying the letter “d” at the end of “suppose”, therefore thinking they’re perfectly correct in using the phrase “suppose to”.

  6. david says:

    Love the title of this one – and it reminds me of my advice to fellow editors who misuse “home” to mean “house.” My favorite instances include headlines I’ve seen that refer to a “vacant home.”

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