September 27, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: hone in or home in & punctuation and citations

Posted in punctuation and citations at 6:48 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Hone or home

A reader writes:

For WLUT:  What’s wrong with this headline?

Taliban targeted Afghan base to hone in on Prince Harry

http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/world/taliban-targeted-afghan-base-to-hone-in-on-prince-harry-653597/#ixzz2714Pp17P

Oh dear. Our local newspaper—I am so proud. (Read the extreme sarcasm, here.) What’s worse than making the error, is that I have been checking it for days, now, and they still have not corrected it. I finally sent a comment this morning. We’ll see if it works.

What is the mistake? It’s simple: ‘hone’ is a verb meaning to sharpen or make more acute or effective. (It can also be a noun referring to the tool that does the sharpening.) But you don’t ‘hone’ in on something or someone, you ‘home’ in. The headline should read:

Taliban targeted Afghan base to home in on Prince Harry

‘Home’ can be a noun, an adverb, an adjective, or a verb. We are interested in its use as a verb, and as a verb, it means to proceed to something or to navigate to a target. Makes much more sense in the headline than a verb meaning to sharpen.

But still, it is a very common error. So common, in fact, that some usage guides consider ‘hone in’ a variant of ‘home in.’ Sorry, I am not buying that. Calling a mistake a variant allows people to persist in their blunder, and that is not acceptable. Now, I don’t mean to be a language curmudgeon but we are striving towards precision, and ‘hone in’ is precisely incorrect. We would never say ‘hone is where the heart is,’ and we should never try to ‘hone in’ on something either.

Tip 2: More on punctuation and citations

A reader writes:

I was hoping someone could clarify something: I know the superscript number comes after the period, but does it come before or after quotation marks?

This is the short answer: After.

This is the long answer: Style guides have distinctly different views on this, so choose the style that most closely reflects the journal to which you are planning to submit your manuscript. The American Medical Association (AMA) Manual of Style is silent on this topic, but in an example provided, the number was positioned after the quotation mark, so I would stick with that..

To review the AMA guidance with respect to punctuation and citations, remember that the superscripted number goes after commas and periods but before colons and semicolons.

It’s a strange little rule, but there it is.

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