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Are the following two constructions substitutes? In other words, can they be used as an alternative to each other?

• The boy broke the knob of the door.
• The boy broke the knob on the door.

If the answer is 'Yes', would there be any difference in meaning?

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  • The second one is more idiomatic and used more commonly. The first is understandable, though it would only be used under limited, specific circumstances. Most people would probably say, simply, "The boy broke the doorknob."
    – Robusto
    Nov 2, 2020 at 4:13
  • And of course you can say, “The boy broke the knob off the door.” ;-)
    – Jim
    Nov 2, 2020 at 4:25

2 Answers 2

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“The boy broke the knob of the door.” All we know is that the knob belonging to the door was broken by the boy. We do not know if the knob was attached to the door or not. It may have been on the door or it may have been removed for repair, or was being prepared for installation.

“The boy broke the knob on the door.” This is ambiguous. He may have struck a hard door with a delicate knob - perhaps ceramic, thus breaking the knob. Or he may have broken the knob (that was) on the door while the knob was attached to (=on) the door.

In conclusion, your statements are not necessarily saying the same thing.

Other prepositions such as off or from pose the same problems. For example: “The boy broke the knob off the door.” This is ambiguous. He may have forcibly removed (broken off) the knob. Or he may have broken a knob that was already off the door. This use of off the door as synonymous with of the door is idiomatic.

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As Robusto points out the second is the most commonly used but they mean the same. One conceivable use of number two would be if the boy had broken the knob against the door, as in breaking a melon against the pavement. The first would be a more stilted use, perhaps in answer to a specific question about what had been broken or how. In any event the boy seems to have issues.

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  • Only the 'of' version here is available if the boy broke the knob while trying to adjust the spindle say after removing the whole assembly. Nov 2, 2020 at 15:18

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