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Source

The parents of a brother-sister duo accused of a horrific acid attack on a pregnant woman and her 2-year-old daughter have been arrested.

In the sentence

"acid attack against a pregnant woman"

what is the difference between 'on' and 'against'? Why was the preposition on preferred in the newspaper article?

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    That is not a sentence. It seems more like a title from a print publication (newspaper or magazine for example). Within the particular context on or against could be used interchangeably. Against is just a longer word and might make the title two lines instead of one. – MaxW Sep 21 '16 at 5:06
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When attack is a noun, the preposition on is preferred with locations, e.g.;

  • attack on Pearl Harbour
  • attack on Fort Sumter
  • attack on (a) French church
  • South Korea, US to simulate attack on nuclear facility (CNN)

If attack is used as verb, no preposition is necessary. All the examples below are taken from Google news

  • ... attacked a homeless man
  • ... attacked people at a shopping mall.
  • seagull attacked customers
  • ... attacked a humanitarian aid convoy

Compare the results for attack on Israel (blue), attacked Israel (red), attack Israel (green), and attack against Israel (yellow). All four are grammatical, but the first suggests that attacks on Israel are seen as acts of aggression aimed at a specific location rather than a nation. But it is a subjective point of view, so it would be interesting to hear from other native speakers.

enter image description here

In the example cited by the OP, the acid was thrown (at) or poured on the woman. The woman's body is considered a surface. The preposition on is used to express physical contact with a surface.

a horrific acid attack on a pregnant woman

The main meaning of against is in "opposition to", in the following examples, against could be substituted with on.

  • UN officials condemn attacks against (an) aid convoy
  • his attacks against a Hispanic federal judge
  • more attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians
  • Pakistan has initiated a string of attacks against India including major ...

However, between attack somebody and attack against somebody, the first preposition is usually preferred. Ngram illustrates that attacked him (blue line) is far more common than attack against him (green line)

enter image description here

  • @Lawrence can I ask you for feedback on this answer? Would you say that it is fairly accurate, or have I missed something? Thanks. – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '16 at 6:59
  • Yes, it looks fairly accurate to me. I particularly like the noun vs verb observation you made. Your last point about the Ngram results may be difficult to interpret - more common doesn't always translate to preferred. – Lawrence Sep 22 '16 at 7:09
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    More on the answer. The feedback you were looking for was about the first Ngram, wasn't it? (NB: the link to that Ngram is missing.) I think "attack in" can be used to involve just the location and not the nation. Against clearly references the nation. On is harder to judge because of the possible physical interpretation, but I think it also references the nation. – Lawrence Sep 22 '16 at 8:33
  • @Lawrence yes, I was thinking whether I should add "in" into the mix, but the OP's question is between two prepositions. I thought it would be too much. I deliberately included only one Ngram link, if someone wants to check the first graph they can just change the words, the date span is the same, 1940-2000. On is indeed harder to judge, sometimes "an attack on" can even be metaphysical. – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '16 at 8:42
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    Given your answer's approach, "in" definitely has a place in the answer, even if only as a passing comment. Also, when I read "Compare the results ... the first suggests ...", it looks like the results led to the suggestion. You're allowed two Ngram links - that's starting to make Ngram links sound like chocolate :) . Placing the link on the word "Compare" or "results", or even the phrase "Compare the results" wouldn't be out of place. If the noun attack is replaced with war to test the connotations of the sentences, I think the choice of in/at/on/against becomes clearer. – Lawrence Sep 22 '16 at 8:55

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