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Hone your language ability to home in on correct usage

My girlfriend and I were discussing something the other night when she stated we were "honing" in on the issue. I gently corrected her, saying the word she meant to use was "homing." A lively discussion ensued. Finally, we decided to leave it to the Since You Asked wordsmiths to settle this matter. Bragging rights are on the line. So please don't let me down.

— Eric H., Grants Pass

Bragging rights? Not a dinner a deux? Or something a bit more interesting? (Yawn) Well, we'll see what we can do here at the Since You Asked's "Told Ya So" central offices.

First, let's cut to the chase. You win this one, Mr. H. According to the Merriam-Webster website, traditionally, a missile homes in (not hones in) on a target. Hone means "to sharpen." The verb home means "to move toward a goal" or "to be guided to a target."

In the 19th century, "homing in" referred to what homing pigeons do; by the early 20th century, it referred also to what aircraft and missiles do.

But don't get all Smuggy McSmugster about this. According to some usage guides, "hone in on" is becoming an acceptable alternative to "home in on." Thanks in part to presidential speechifying, your better half's version of the two phrases is starting to slip into common usage, according to the grammar police at About.com.

George (H.W.) Bush's use of this phrase in the 1980 presidential campaign (he talked of 'honing in on the issues') caught the critical eye of political columnist Mary McCrory, and her comments on it were noted, approved and expanded by William Safire.

Safire observed that 'hone in on' is a confused variant of 'home in on,' and there seems to be little doubt that he was right. ... Our first example of 'home in on' is from 1951, in a context having to do with aviation. Our earliest record of its figurative use is from 1956. We did not encounter 'hone in on' until George Bush used it in 1980. ..."

By the late 20th century, some writers had begun mistaking the phrase by using the wrong verb, hone (to sharpen) instead of home, the site said.

According to a 1994 excerpt from Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "It may be that eventually hone in on will become so common that dictionaries will begin to enter it as a standard phrase; and usage commentators will then routinely rail against it as an ignorant corruption of the language. That is a development we can all look forward to, but its time is not yet. In the meantime, we recommend that you use home in on instead."

Our advice is to accept this win gracefully, then take your girlfriend out to dinner. That way she might home in on you.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.