Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court denied injunctive relief to the opponents of Texas’ anti-abortion law, a post appeared on a popular legal news website describing the forcefulness of the four dissents. The article states, “Justice [Stephen] Breyer’s  hones in on the serious harm that will result from allowing SB8 to take effect.” (Rubino, Even Chief Justice Roberts is Salty About the Court’s Inaction in the Texas Abortion Case, Above the Law (Sept. 2, 2021) (italics added).)
Justice Breyer’s opinion says that enactment of the law “may well threaten the [abortion-provider plaintiffs] with imminent and serious harm” and mentions supporting evidence, such as affidavits asserting that the clinics cannot run the financial risk of being sued and will have to close. (Whole Women’s Health, et al. v. Jackson (2021) 594 U.S. ___ (dis. opn. of Breyer, J).) But the sentence describing his dissent in the Above the Law post still has a problem: It contains a common misuse of the word hone. The error underscores the importance of taking care, especially when producing written material, to word common phrases correctly.
As a noun, hone means whetstone—a tool for sharpening blades. As a verb, it means to sharpen, refine, or perfect. A person may, for example, hone a skill. But when you focus on a subject or zero in on it, you home in on it. As a verb, home means to go or return home (as a homing pigeon does after delivering a message). It also means to move or proceed toward an objective or to direct attention to something. A missile, for example, homes in on its target. Unless you are using home to mean to house or provide with a home, it is an intransitive verb—so it cannot immediately be followed by an object. It is not correct to say that a missile homes its target.
Hone, on the other hand, is a transitive verb—it must immediately be followed by an object. It is not grammatically correct to say that a person hones in their technique, or hones in on a craft, or hones in or hones in on anything, for that matter.
Horn in, by the way, means something else entirely—to participate without consent, to intrude.
In Modern American Usage (3d ed.), legal writing expert Bryan Garner notes that appearance of hone in in place of home in has reached Stage 3 of his “Language-Change Index,” meaning the misworded phrase has become “commonplace among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.” Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary speculates that hone in “may have arisen from home in by the weakening of the /m/ sound to /n/.” Hone in is an “eggcorn”—“a word accidentally used for another that sounds similar, like saying eggcorn for acorn,” as Vocabulary.com explains.
Merriam-Webster also posits that hone in’s usage has spread because “the narrowing or sharpening of focus implied in the figurative meaning of hone  seems to have made hone in seem like the right phrase to some, rather than home in with its unfamiliar verb home.”
While use of hone in for home in has become ordinary enough for Merriam-Webster to consider it acceptable, the venerable dictionary’s editors warn that the appearance of hone in “especially in writing is likely to be considered a mistake” and that home in “remains significantly more common and is the version to use if you want to avoid criticism.”
Home in, rather than hone in, also makes more sense in the context in which it appears in the Above the Law article. In Whole Women’s Health, Justice Breyer’s dissent immediately follows that of Chief Justice John Roberts, which, because he is the head of the court, immediately follows the majority opinion, penned by Justice Samuel Alito. Since neither Justice Alito’s opinion nor the Chief Justice’s discusses the serious harm likely to befall the plaintiffs should the Texas law stand, Justice Breyer’s cannot really be said to sharpen or refine the focus on the matter. (The only thing Justice Alito’s says about injury is that the plaintiffs failed to show they would face it; Justice Roberts’ does not address harm at all.)
In 2014, Garner wrote in an online post that given Merriam-Webster’s treatment of hone in, the “erroneous substitution” probably had become even more common than he had judged it to be in 2011, the year that Oxford University Press (OUP) published the third, and most recent, edition of Modern American Usage. (Garner, Lawprose Lesson #187: Home in and Hone in, LawProse (Oct. 7, 2014).) Apparently, in three years, hone in had horned in further on home in. But it remained the “invariably inferior form,” as he put it.
Two years later, OUP published the successor to Modern American Usage, titled Modern English Usage. There, use of hone in for home in is indeed identified as having reached Stage 4 of the Language-Change Index. Even so, the entry for home in still begins, “Home in, not hone in, is the correct phrase.” (Garner, Modern English Usage (2016) pp. 467-468; Garner, Modern American Usage (2009) pp. 424-425.)
“The phrase will always be both a faulty metaphor and a grammatical gaffe: ‘sharpen in’ is simply nonsensical,” Garner wrote in the 2014 post. “To hone your writing and speech, remember the humble homing pigeon to home in on the right phrase.”
About the Author:
Attorney Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF