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Which one of the following statements is correct? Is it possible to please help me with the English rule on this one?

  1. The stranger knocked on the door.
  2. The stranger knocked at the door.
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5 Answers 5

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Both are correct and, absent additional context, are very close in meaning. They do not, however, mean exactly the same thing.

He knocked on the door gives a slight emphasis to the physical act of knocking by focusing on the object subjected to the knocking.

He knocked at the door gives a slight emphasis to the social act of waiting for an invitation to enter the premises by focusing on where the act occurred.

For example, it would sound very odd to say He knocked at the door and then immediately kicked it open.

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    In many contexts, though, I think these are pretty much synonymous. For example: The salesman ascended the steps, and then knocked at/on the door. I think the two prepositions are all but interchangeable in that case.
    – J.R.
    Mar 16, 2018 at 14:12
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The phrase "knock on the door" typically employs "knock" as a verb, referring to the action of using one's knuckles to hit a door to gain the attention of someone on the other side. In contrast, "a knock at the door" uses "knock" as a noun, referring to the sound that is heard when someone hits a door with their knuckles.

Here are some examples to illustrate the difference:

  • I knocked on the door to see if anyone was home. (verb)
  • I heard a knock at the door, so I answered it. (noun)
  • She knocked on the door three times before giving up. (verb)
  • The knock at the door was loud and insistent. (noun)
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  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
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    Jan 16 at 13:35
  • +1 This answer is correct. One wonders why it received a downvote.
    – Lambie
    Jan 16 at 14:51
  • @Lambie possibly because it was generated by someone or something else?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 19 at 7:31
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They are both correct and basically mean the same thing, but, from a more technical perspective, there is a small, I'd even say tiny, difference between them:

  1. The stranger was knocking on the door itself.

  2. The stranger was (possibly) knocking on something else while he was standing next to the door.

In the second sentence, at specifically expresses the location where the knocking took place. It happened near the door where the stranger was standing. It could have been the door, but it might just as well have been something else that the stranger was knocking on. This is in principle similar to how we use the preposition at when talking about places as locations. For instance:

I'll meet you at Bob's.

The location is Bob's place (the house or apartment where he lives). That's the place where the act of meeting you will take place.

Take a look at these examples:

He knocked on the door in hopes that someone would open it.

He got so scared that he could barely move when he heard a loud knock at the door.

In the second sentence, we don't care about the fact that the knock was on the door. For all intents and purposes, it might have been something else other than the door. We're more concerned about the location where it happened—where the sound of knocking came from.

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  • When there is a security panel over the actual door you may need to knock on a glass or timber panel next to the door in order to be heard.
    – Peter
    Jan 18 at 13:41
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If you hit a door, window, etc., especially several times, to attract someone's attention, you can use the preposition on or at after the verb/noun "knock". There's no difference in meaning. For examples:

He knocked on/at the door.

I heard a knock on/at the door.

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It would seem at is the version of on which is reflected in the idiomatic "on and on." At suggests a repeated knocking in that it is the less formally appropriate of the choices.

On the door, formality being that which is carried out and satisfies convention and common etiquette, is the more formal.

At the door, connoting almost a barrage, an attack in this sense if the specificity of location of the blow/s on the door is taken into account, suggests more than one and more also in sentiment, more than one tap.

The colloquial evidence stands in support of this distinction--he's at it again, a British idiomatic use of at, would well continue this described and eventful appearance of the stranger, although admittedly comically.

Nevertheless the comical spirit of this use of at in the English language is in fact seriously comical and appreciated in its fullest caricatural presentation of an act when comically serious.

This is, as a lot of linguistic and terminological analysis in language is, boiled down to a little bit of personal and intuitive experience taking the lead, yet a lot of common sense. Language is afterall in-built, and its rules are too!

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    Nov 7, 2022 at 11:39

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