Grammar Peeve: CBS News Needs to Hone Its Blurb Writing Skills

  • Posted on: 6 March 2014
  • By: Jay Oyster

I have lots of pet peeves about people using words wrong. But I know many people are just annoyed by people pointing out such things, so I almost always keep it to myself. Plus, you always risk having your own typos and foibles pointed out in response. But this morning, I happened across an example of one of my most peevishly pet peeves in such a prominent location, by people whose job it is to know better, and I just simply cannot hold it in.

CBS Article blurb from their website, 3/6/2014Take a look at this article headline and blurb from the front page of this morning's CBS News website:  "College Board unveils sweeping changes to SATs". That's fine. It's the blurb beneath that is the problem.

I've heard this over and over in recent years in conversation, and more and more in print. And here we have it, in a story about educational standards, no less, on the front page of one of the big network news agencies. HONE and HOME cannot be used interchangeably! 

"Hone", and I'm not referencing a dictionary or anything on this, it's just something that should be common knowledge, for christ's sake! means that you are sharpening something. The classic usage is of course to sharpen a blade or chisel. It often refers to a fine blade rather than a large, gross piece of metal. So you would say, "My axe was dull, so I sharpened it."  But if you have a dull hand plane, you might say, "I was getting tear-out with my number 4 plane, so I removed its blade and honed it." or "I honed the edge on my filleting knife." Honing is a fine function; something that requires skill and care and is performed on something of higher value. Metaphorically, we often speak of 'honing our skills', or  'he has a honed wit.' Honing is a term of refining, of improving the state of things.

To "HOME IN", on the other hand, classically refers to a homing pigeon. Homing in on something means that you are returning to a place of comfort, or the place where you serve your primary function. A missile homes in on its target. In a meeting we might discuss "homing in on a solution." To home in is a term of searching.

I have no fricken clue what 'hone in' means.

Now to be fair, this is a blurb on the article. Neither the word hone nor home appears in the article itself. The article, by Lynn O'Shaugnessy, seems a perfectly respectable work of journalism. No, this is a problem in the headline writing department. Of course, I've seen this mangling of the English language in both titles and in the bodies of articles elsewhere lately.

I fear that this is a case where the usage of hone and home has migrated from simple malapropism, where a word is simply misused, to a catachresism, where a word is socially divorced from its historical meaning. And the original meaning of catachresis is "Abuse". Please, please stop abusing the English language. What did it ever do to you to deserve this?