Friday, February 10, 2012

Home in on and hone in on

It begins with this status update from someone on Facebook:

Do people now accept "to hone in on" as in sharpen one's attention on something — as opposed to "to home in on"?

After a dozen or so comments that all denounced "hone in on," I entered the fray by referring the crowd to the Eggcorn Database and the page on the issue there:

There's a link there to a lengthy discussion of the issue by Mark Liberman, from Language Log:

I noted the following about Liberman's discussion:

It's fascinating to note that "home in on" is definitely only a few years older than "hone in on," and that George HW Bush's use of "hone in on" suggests that the "hone" form might have arisen almost simultaneously with "home in on" (as he was a pilot in WW2).

 After a few more comments by others, along came this comment:

Sorry to be so harsh, but only a dribbling cretin would believe the former to be correct. 'Hone' - as many others have pointed out - has *always* denoted the act of polishing/refining.

This led me to write:

"Only a dribbling cretin": give me a break! Read the Mark Liberman link I posted; like a good linguist, he treats all users of a language as worthy of respect, and he ends up with a much deeper understanding of how language is used than those who insult people for making "mistakes."

Which eventually led the poster of the "dribbling cretin" comment to this remark:

 Thank you for the link, Andrew: extremely interesting - but anyone who possesses what you characterise as "a much deeper understanding of how language is used" would be forced to the inevitable conclusion that Liberman - albeit perhaps a little too subtly for some - is simply monitoring, with exemplary fair-mindedness, the continued use of a malapropism that unfortunately appears to have taken root among dribbling cretins everywhere.

As for "treating all users of a language as worthy of respect": do you accord the same respect to people who deploy (as two examples we see on Fakebbook every day) "your" rather than "you're" and "it's" rather than "its"? If not, then perhaps you'd care to explain *why* not?

So here is my response to this last comment.

On the eggcorn in question:

First of all, I would not call the use of "hone in on" instead of "home in on" a malapropism. In a malapropism, the misused word does not make any sense at all in the context it is used in. In an eggcorn, the new phrase is "different from the original, but plausible in the context" (to quote the Wikipedia page on "eggcorn," which begins by contrasting the two terms). Recall that Mrs. Malaprop misuses words because she wants to show off. Users of eggcorns are not showing off; there are good reasons for the construction of an eggcorn.

This particular case exemplifies those reasons (as Liberman argues quite cogently): there is a phonetic justification for the usage (home/hone is a minimal pair, and the distinguishing phonemes are often misconstrued). Further (and again, following Liberman), the metaphorical extension of "hone" in this context is semantically feasible. 

To me, though, Liberman's most interesting point is that "hone in on" appears relatively soon after "home in on." We are not talking about one expression ("home in on") that has existed for centuries and a new expression ("hone in on") that recently began to replace it. Instead, "home in on" appears, and shortly thereafter, "hone in on" appears. So this is an example of a new expression that immediately generates an alternative that is phonetically and semantically not without justification. (A related case is "could (not) care less," where the "incorrect" form follows very quickly after the "correct" form. There are Language Log discussions of this, too, such as the one here, again by Liberman, which provides links to many further posts on the topic.)

In addition, once people begin hearing the "alternative" expression, they will begin to use it, especially if everybody around them does. A different expression is both a good example here and a funny story in its own right: I once used the spoonerism "one swell foop" when talking to my friend Heather. This is just a form that I like to use sometimes because it's funny. Heather laughed and told me that her mother had always used the spoonerism for its comic effect, but that meant that Heather thought that the real expression was "one swell foop." Eventually, Heather heard "one fell swoop" and thought that that expression was a funny spoonerism. This did not make either Heather or her mother a "dribbling cretin"; the whole process was and is completely understandable. If you hear something all the time, you will pick it up and use it, because that's what you hear.

On treating language users with respect (and "your/you're" and "it's/its"):

The short answer is that I do respect users who mix these forms up, because I understand why they get mixed up. One source of the problem is touch-typing: I learned how to touch type almost 35 years ago (thanks, Mom, for insisting that I take the typing class!), and one thing I noticed pretty much immediately was that when I got faster, my fingers stopped typing individual letters, as it were, and typed whole words as units. My name, for example, is so programmed into my touch-typing fingers that if I try to type my wife's name (Andrea), I always end up typing my name first (Andrew), and then I have to go back and correct it. The same thing happens with the problem pairs with apostrophes (for me, it's usually not the two mentioned above but "their/there/they're" that cause trouble because of typing reflexes—and even as I typed them now, my finger reflexes got in the way again!).

Secondly, in the case of "it's/its," many people are probably posting on Facebook with their iPhones, and the iPhone autocorrect will turn "its" into "it's" almost every time! (I'm puzzled why it sometimes does not do so.) Similarly, the commenter in question uses hyphens for dashes, and that would be annoying in a printed context. But on Facebook, it doesn't matter at all, and it's completely understandable—after all, it's easier to type a hyphen than a dash on a computer, and it's much easier to do so on an iPhone.

Thirdly, I mostly come across those problems in unedited contexts (such as Facebook), and I simply write it off as an honest slip; I've certainly posted things before editing them often enough, only to discover a silly mistake after doing so. It's related to rapid production (I had to stop for a moment to check my "it's" there to make sure it was correct, and it slowed down my production for a moment!). Even in the comment above, such a "rapid production" mistake appears: the commenter writes "Fakebbook." I like the playful "Fakebook" for "Facebook" (that's what I assume it is), and the double "bb" is just a typo. The mistake caused by rapid production does not make him a cretin.

Finally, even in highly edited contexts, the mistake slips through. When I come across "it's" for "its" in poetry collections, I take note of them. I've come across a half-a-dozen instances in the past two or three years. And in every case, the mistake only appears once or twice, and "it's" is otherwise correctly used in the book. The same is true of novels. 

In the final analysis, these are not problems of grammar. They are problems of typography. People make such errors even if they largely write correctly otherwise. And to come back to the commenter's question: yes, even people who make such mistakes deserve to be treated with respect as far as their language use is concerned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

First, "hone in" is recognized by at last one standard resource, The American Heritage Dictionary:

hone in (phrasal verb)
1. To move or advance toward a target or goal: The missiles honed in on the military installation.
2. To focus the attention or make progress achieving an objective: The lawyer honed in on the gist of the plaintiff's testimony.

Second, the notion that "hone in" derives from "home in" is spurious—unless your poster who so despises "dribbling cretins" can provide some evidence for the derivation. While this person is about it, he or she might explain how "dribbling cretins" rose to editorial positions associated with The American Heritage Dictionary.