Here’s a teaser for you: compare these two quotations from recent news coverage:

Quotation the first: “A team of scientists examined DNA from the remains of victims or survivors of the [bubonic] plague, and found that the genetic variants that protected people from the pandemic then are now associated with an increased risk of autoimmune diseases….. Their aim was to look for variations that appeared to have rapidly increased in frequency after the event, suggesting that they’d had a protective effect. They honed in on four variants involved with the immune system …” – The Week, 5 November 2022.

Quotation the second: “It has somehow passed unnoticed that, as he chose to home in on the integrity question at Rishi Sunak’s first PMQs last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer completely reinvented a tale about the PM to suit the out-of-touch banker attack line …” – Private Eye, November 2022

The two extracts have little enough in common. But there’s that odd little phrase, almost identical but not quite, in each: in the first, the team of scientists “honed in on four variants involved with the immune system …” In the second, Keir Starmer “chose to home in on the integrity question …” .

To “hone in on four variants” (out of many, evidently) and to “home in on the integrity question …” : is this the same phrase or two different ones? The verb-phrase “to hone in on” has made many appearances in recent years. What it seems to be intended to mean is “to focus on”, or perhaps to “refine or sharpen the focus”. But whatever is intended, the verb “to hone” never takes the preposition “in”. The noun “hone” refers to a whetstone, a hard stone on which metallic objects may be sharpened by abrasion. The verb “to hone” therefore means “to sharpen”. But one doesn’t “sharpen in” let alone “sharpen in on”: “to sharpen” is transitive: we sharpen a pencil on a piece of sandpaper, or on a carborundum. The phrase we’re looking at here uses “hone” intransitively, with prepositions. (“Hone” is also, but irrelevantly, a dialect word meaning “to moan” or “to grieve”.)  

So “hone” in any of these senses doesn’t fit the phrase the prepositions are attempting to construct. But what about “home in on”? Suddenly we’re talking intelligibly. The verb “to home” has for a long time possessed a subsidiary meaning “to go home” or “to come home”.  We talk of “homing pigeons” for instance. In more recent times the addition of the preposition “in” has given “to home” a more physical connotation, implying movement towards home, a sense that is strengthened by the additional proposition “on”. The full phrase is a modern one, dating from the second World War, I imagine, and it certainly has its uses in an age of precisely measured distances and velocities.  

I think it’s the sense of intensifying closeness that suggests the sharpening action of “hone”. But “to hone in on” is, as we’ve seen, a nonsense phrase. It’s a mishearing, or at any rate a misunderstanding, of “to home in (on)”. And I guess that explains it well enough: another case of ignorance moulding the language regardless of logic or common sense. Nonetheless, the Americans accept this strange phrase, with its connotation of moving toward, often in a sporting context; I discover that the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus takes the phrase at face-value, and solemnly declares it kosher, citing as an example: “the missile was honing in on its target”, though without offering any history. Who am I to contradict such an authority? But as a true Brit, I shall stoutly deny its legitimacy in British English. 

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