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hone in or home in?

February 28, 2018

In Melanie Phillips’ column in The Times yesterday I came across the following, irritating misuse of English: ‘[Justin Welby’s] argument fails to hone in on the Christian basis of [British] culture’.

Hone in on. I do not know why this tiny error annoys me so much, but it does. Hone means to sharpen. It is most often used adjectivally, as in well-honed. Phillips here is confusing it with a different phrasal verb, to home in on, which means to focus on a target. Not that she’s the only one to do this. It’s a popular mistake.

On a more substantive note, although I agree with Phillips’ general point that the Archbishop was right to argue that Sharia law should not be integrated into the British legal system, I do not agree at all that western liberal values are rooted in the Bible, as she claims. Well, some values might be. But not the ones about murdering witches and homosexual people, or committing genocide against enemy tribes. I think we can do without those.

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  1. I’ve recently noticed that some people – young ones mainly – are using the term hoi pilloi (not hi pillow – thanks, predictive texting) for the upper class, not the lower.

  2. Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s going to annoy me.

    • hoity-toity and the hoi pilloi – perhaps it is a matter of confusing the two because of unfamiliarity.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    This is an interesting one. Hone in is mainly used in North America and is possibly related to sharpening one’s focus on a subject. That seems a stretch to me; it seems more likely that the N in hone makes it more natural to say hone in than home in. Of course Americans also say horn in to mean interfere so there could be some connection.

  4. Ah, I didn’t know this was a North American usage, but I am sure you’re right. I think it’s just a matter of two similar-sounding words being confused; and as I’ve noted before, where there are two similar-sounding words in roughly adjacent semantic areas, the less common one tends to be preferred because people think it sounds more impressive.

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