Hello! I've come across the following phrase, "Nothing happens in contradiction to nature, only in contradiction to what we know of it."

It's not clear to me why "of" is used here and not "about". Isn't "of" used when we're just aware of the existence of something or someone without knowing any details, i.e. without having any real knowledge? I would expect to hear, for one, "I'll tell you what I know about nature" and not, "...what I know of nature". The latter sounds self-contradictory to me because "of" implies that all I know is that nature exists.

Original Post

Hi, Alexey86,

Alexey86 posted:

I've come across the following phrase, "Nothing happens in contradiction to nature, only in contradiction to what we know of it."

It's not clear to me why "of" is used here and not "about". Isn't "of" used when we're just aware of the existence of something or someone without knowing any details, i.e. without having any real knowledge? I would expect to hear, for one, "I'll tell you what I know about nature" and not, "...what I know of nature". The latter sounds self-contradictory to me because "of" implies that all I know is that nature exists.

I understand your doubt, but "of" sounds right to me there. I think it can be used instead of "about" in certain specific cases, and the structure "what I know of ..." seems to be one of such cases (although "what I know about ..." is also right).

I've checked the Oxford Collocations Dictionary, and what it says is in line with our understanding of the cases when each of the mentioned prepositions follows the verb:

Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English, 2nd edition
know verb
 
preposition
about
He ~s a lot about music.
of
I don't ~ of anyone who might be interested in the job.
 
© Oxford University Press, 2009

Thank you, Gustavo! Maybe I missed something, but to me, OCD's entry supports my doubts. "He knows a lot about music." = He's not only aware of its existence but has real knowledge about music, whereas "I don't know of anyone who might be interested in the job." = I just don't know if such people exist.

Alexey86 posted:

Maybe I missed something, but to me, OCD's entry supports my doubts. "He knows a lot about music." = He's not only aware of its existence but has real knowledge about music, whereas "I don't know of anyone who might be interested in the job." = I just don't know if such people exist.

Yes, that is what I meant -- OCD supports your claim that "about" introduces the subject-matter while "of" introduces the object.

My claim is that the sentence you proposed, which is correct, is an exception to the general rule above.

I've continued studying the "about/of" distinction and came across this topic. It's interesting that while"of" usually implies a lack of real, particular knowledge and points to the unfamiliarity of its object to the speaker/listener, in the case of "a story about/the story of", even if the speaker introduces a new topic unfamiliar to the listener, and there may be almost innumerable potential stories, "of" turns "a story" into "the story" from the beginning.  Why is it so? 

"of" and "about" are often interchangeable. When they are not, or when one is preferred over the other, the clue to decide which to use does not lie so much in the person's familiarity with or ignorance of the topic but in the specificity of the noun phrase -- with a definite article, "of" (which is better than "about" to refer to specific objects) sounds better, while with an indefinite article both "of" and "about" (which can be used for more general subject-matters) sound fine:

the story of a person who had a grammatical dilemma
a story of / about people who had grammatical dilemmas

That's what confuses me. Grammar books say introducing a new topic/subject that is represented by a singular countable noun, not familiar to the listener, and not unique as such requires the indefinite article.

"A story..." in, for one, "This is a story about a man who won a lottery" perfectly matches these conditions. I hope it's clear now why "the story of" seems strange to me. At the moment, I see only two possible reasons for using "the":

a) the story covers the whole life of this man;

b) to give the listener a sense of anticipation, the feeling that he is about to hear an outstanding story.

Does it make sense to you?

Any of these works finely:

1. This is a story about a man who won the lottery.

2. This is a story of a man who won the lottery.

3. This is the story of a man who won the lottery.

I think the use of "the" in (3) might have to do with this interpretation you provided:

b) to give the listener a sense of anticipation, the feeling that he is about to hear an outstanding story.

Also, in (1) and (2) the sense is that there are other stories, and that this one in particular refers to a man who won the lottery. If tacit reference to other stories is unnecessary, then "the" can be used. Another example:

4. This is a picture of Susan.

5. This is the picture of Susan.

If tacit reference to other stories is unnecessary, then "the" can be used.

4. This is a picture of Susan.

5. This is the picture of Susan.

I don't quite understand "unnecessary". If the speaker has never mentioned this picture before, the listener will be confused by "the" or may decide this is the only picture of Susan. Or, am I wrong?

1. This is a story about a man who won the lottery.

May I ask you why "the lottery"? I mean there are many lotteries, and this is just one of them.

Alexey86 posted:

5. This is the picture of Susan.

I don't quite understand "unnecessary". If the speaker has never mentioned this picture before, the listener will be confused by "the" or may decide this is the only picture of Susan.

By "unnecessary" I mean that you don't want to imply that there are other pictures. This is the picture of Susan would be equivalent to This is what she looks like.

You can of course also say: This is a picture of Susan.

Alexey86 posted:

1. This is a story about a man who won the lottery.

May I ask you why "the lottery"? I mean there are many lotteries, and this is just one of them.

Google "win (won) the lottery" and "win (won) a lottery" and you'll see.

This is the picture of Susan would be equivalent to This is what she looks like.

It didn't cross my mind, thank you!

Google "win (won) the lottery" and "win (won) a lottery" and you'll see.
 

I prefer understanding to just memorization. Maybe you know what makes a lottery special? I can think of "the (state/main) lottery".

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