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.