So I'm at the gym the other morning, putting in an hour on my favorite elliptical, the one that's smack-dab in front of the TV. The Today show is on, and they're doing a segment on retirement planning. The reporter is interviewing a financial expert. "So," she asks, "what are the things people need to be honing in on as they approach retirement?"
I grimace and think, "No, that's not right."
Then, I recalled a conversation from a couple of years ago. I'd emailed my client a draft of the direct mail promotion I'd written for him. After he looked it over, we talked on the phone. He questioned me about the following sentence: "You'll collaborate with Alan and others in the room to home in on the answers." "Home in," Alan asked, "is that correct?"
I'm sure you've concluded by now what the first of my Three Commonly Misused Words is.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word hone, meaning "to sharpen," has been around since 1828. You can hone a knife and you can hone your writing, public speaking, and marketing skills. But you can't hone in on anything. The correct word, the correct phrase, is home in. In the 19th century, the metaphor referred to what homing pigeons do. By the early 20th century, the phrase also referred to what aircraft and missiles do.
Search the phrase hone in, though, and you'll see that its usage is widespread. Respected writers, such as George Plimpton and Bob Greene, have used the phrase. It's appeared in the pages of The New York Times, the Boston Herald, and many other well-regarded publications. At least one online dictionary defines hone in as "to move or advance toward a target or goal."
Still, any communicator who's serious about communicating will avoid hone in. Sure, most people will understand what you mean by it. But some of them will "discount the messenger" for using this phrase.
Why take that hit to your credibility? If home in on doesn't sound right to you, go with "zero in on"—which, on second thought, might have been a better choice for that promo I wrote for Alan.
If there were a "Hall of Shame" comprising exhibits related to misused words, the space devoted to comprise would surely be one of its largest. The comprise exhibit would be filled with examples such as these:
- "What they're saying is far from riveting, but together these images comprise [make up] a small-town symphony of pig racing and wedding planning, young love and old misdemeanors." —New York Times
- "If, when configuring an action dialog, you want to be able to view the values that comprise [constitute] a CVL, run Designer...." —IBM.com
- "So they devised a sound-damping sensor, comprised of [composed of] an infra-red motion-detector, a speaker and a microphone." —FastCompany.com
Comprise means "to include, contain, consist of." The whole comprises the parts. As with hone in, you can find a dictionary entry to sanction using comprise to convey a different meaning. In this case, "to form, to make up." My paperback Oxford American Dictionary includes "to form, to make up" as the third definition for comprise.
But it also adds the following usage note: "The words constitute and compose are preferable in this sense. It is incorrect to say or write 'the apartment is comprised of three rooms.'" (They clearly state that the usage is incorrect. And yet they include it as a definition anyway. Go figure.)
To wrap up this section, here are three examples of the precise and skillful use of comprise:
- "Comprising six essential programs, AMTECH Office Pro increases your competitive advantage, helps you win business and saves you time and money." —AMTECH Power Software website, product description page
- "Crown Business Park is an exciting new development and will comprise high specification office, industrial and warehouse buildings along with bespoke design and build opportunities." —Barnfield Construction website
- "Serge Brunier is a French photographer and writer who has specialized in the stars. One of his most stunning works, a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panoramic view of the Milky Way, comprises more than a thousand photographs taken over the course of a year." —"Digital Pick: Starry Night," New Yorker (blog), May 20, 2010
In August 2009, President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy at Sen. Ted Kennedy's funeral mass. It's a moving and (as you would expect at this level) well-written speech. This otherwise note-perfect piece of prose, however, is marred by the President's use of the word podium.
Obama's text, referring to Sen. Kennedy, reads as follows:
"We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers' rights or civil rights."
Obama and his speechwriters paint a vivid picture, and they no doubt liked the alliteration of "pounding the podium." Problem is, in the most widely accepted definition of podium, Sen. Kennedy would have to have fallen flat on his face to be "pounding the podium." That's because, according to Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, "A lectern is the stand on which a speaker places his or her notes. A podium is the raised platform on which the speaker and lectern stand."
And in The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly, Charles Harrington Elster, a nationally recognized authority on language and the author of eight books, writes, "The style manuals of the Associated Press and The New York Times support that time-honored distinction [lectern versus podium] and insist, as the latter puts it, that a speaker stands on a podium and at or behind a lectern.'"
For the final word on podium, I turn to Garner's Modern American Usage. This widely respected guide acknowledges that though using podium for lectern "has become commonplace...careful writers should avoid it."
Careful writers—isn't that what we all should aspire to be? Of course it's one thing if you're sending an email to a family member or friend, but another thing altogether if you're...
- Posting content on the company website or blog
- Writing a whitepaper, case study, or newsletter
- Giving a presentation at an industry conference
- Making the "big pitch" to the buying committee when your pitch is one of three competing pitches
In the examples above and in all our business communications, we want to put our best foot forward, and that calls for careful writing. Careful writing preserves and enhances our credibility. Writing in the preface to the third edition of his Garner's Modern American Usage and alluding to those who urge wider acceptance of such disputed usages (as presented in this article), Bryan Garner states: "There aren't just a few dozen trouble spots in the language, or even a few hundred. There are several thousand of them. Given the critical acumen of many readers, for a writer to remain unconscious of these pitfalls and write whatever sounds close enough will inevitably lead to a loss of credibility. Vague intelligibility isn't the touchstone; precision is."
Hone in? Comprised of? Using podium for lectern? If your objective is not merely to communicate but to communicate with a precision that preserves and enhances your credibility, you'll forgo (not forego) these words and phrases and make every effort to get it right when you write (or speak).