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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
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.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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 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.
From Our Inbox
Reader N.B. weighed in on the great that-for-who debate of the last
two weeks …
I think perhaps the editors are missing the point of the consternation among at least a portion of the newsletter readership. Those of us who disagree with the use of that when referring to people aren’t necessarily doing so because we feel it’s solecistic or otherwise demonstrates bad English, but rather because language evolves over time, leaving certain traditions behind and embracing others. At this point in the evolution of American standard English, academic and otherwise formal writers have largely moved away from it, as have the more punctilious copyeditors within the American publishing industry.
The writer makes many sound points. However, our purpose was to stress that it is a violation of trust and a breach of authority to represent personal preferences as rules.
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Funny-sounding and interesting words from Merriam-Webster.
Billingsgate: coarsely abusive language
Bumfuzzle: confuse; perplex; fluster
Collywobbles: pain in the abdomen, especially in the stomach; a bellyache
Taradiddle: a fib or pretentious nonsense
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.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.