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A Word, Please: Misspoken word makes a point about precision

February 02, 2013|By June Casagrande

Here's an insightful observation: People don't like to sound stupid. In fact, that's the No. 1 concern of most of the people who ask me questions about language.

Grammar has the uncanny power to make everyone feel like a dimwit in a neon dunce cap. But if you're one of the millions who fear that usage errors make you look dumb, take heart: Our language trips up smart people, too.

“Proton therapy makes it feasible to just hone in on the actual tumors.”

That newspaper excerpt is a direct quotation from someone who, unlike me, knows what proton therapy is — a medical researcher on the cutting edge of cancer science speaking directly to a reporter. But not even someone with that much brainpower can sidestep the English language's innumerable make-you-look-dumb traps.

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What, you may be wondering, is wrong with his sentence? It's the phrase “hone in on.” What the speaker surely meant was “home in on.”

The expression “to home in on something” is a pretty recent addition to the language, its first documented uses starting around 1920. That's when a magazine called Wireless World described a pilot “homing” toward a beacon. The quotation marks were included, suggesting the magazine writer was either coining the term or indicating it was still a novel usage.

Over the next 30 or so years, the term started to take shape in the phrase “home in on.” At the time, it was confined mostly to military uses. But since then, the expression has found its way into the common lexicon, complete with this entry in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: “home. verb. to proceed to or toward a source of radiated energy used as a guide. Missiles home in on radar.”

Hone is a different word altogether. If you've ever heard someone say he wants to hone his skills, you already have a good idea of how it's used. To hone is to sharpen, which makes sense when you realize that the word first came into being as a noun meaning a whetstone. In modern English, it can also mean “to make more acute, intense or effective,” according to Merriam-Webster's.

So the verbs “home” and “hone” are very different, yet it's easy to see how they get confused. After all, “home in on” is similar to “pinpoint,” and “hone” is something you'd do to a knifepoint. The words not only sound alike, they also both emphasize precision.

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