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Careful planning is the secret of success.

These animals may hold the secret to combating the virus.

The secret to happiness is love.

When secret means a fact about a subject that is not known, can of and to here be interchangeable? If not, what's the difference?

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    I would say that in the first example, it should really be "the secret to success". The use of "of" is a little odd IMHO. See google ngram comparison here. It would appear that "secret of success" is also in current, but it's not the most common form historically. It's popularity seems to be driven by recent book titles like "The Secret of Success". While it may be acceptable as a book title, I wouldn't use it in a sentence like the example.
    – Billy Kerr
    Sep 14, 2023 at 10:41

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The difference is the same as with any use of these two prepositions.

  • 'of' means belonging to, relating to, or in connection with.
  • 'to' is used to indicate the place, person, or thing the subject is moving towards or the direction in which it is moving.

So, for example:

  • "The secret to happiness" would mean some information that can lead to happiness.
  • "The secret of Black Rock" would be a secret that belongs to, or relates to the place called 'Black Rock'.

Even native speakers get this wrong, so don't be surprised if you hear things like "the secret of happiness".

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  • So when secret means a fact about a subject that is not known, what's the difference between the secret of success and the secret to success?
    – Jones
    Sep 14, 2023 at 8:10
  • We can use 'the secret to' something (an action or process) to discuss the right or most likely to be successful or effective way to do something. The secret to loosening a stubborn bolt is to use plenty of oil first, the secret to getting Dad to agree to something is to give him several whiskies before asking. The UK Guardian had a series of articles in 2018 called The secret to... including The secret to… helping children cope with the death of a pet, and The secret to… preparing for a baby if you have a disability Sep 14, 2023 at 8:18
  • @jones I thought I'd answered that question? The secret to success would be something that can make you successful if you learn and apply it. The secret of success would be a secret relating to success.
    – Astralbee
    Sep 14, 2023 at 11:08
  • 'Even native speakers get this wrong, so don't be surprised if you hear things like "the secret of happiness" - I personally (reasonably well educated UK native aged 71) find this a bit strong. I would accept either. Sep 14, 2023 at 11:41
  • Native speakers like Bertrand Russell - The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile. '' (The Conquest of Happiness, 1930) Sep 14, 2023 at 13:17

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