Two event-related potential (ERP) experiments were used to examine the representation of object feature information and background knowledge in semantic memory. Participants were trained on novel object categories with three features and were tested with new exemplars that were complete or were missing one to two features that were essential or nonessential to object function. In both a category membership judgment task (Experiment 1) and a parts detection task (Experiment 2), the N400, a functionally specific measure of semantic access, was graded with feature number but was insensitive to knowledge-based feature importance. A separable ERP effect related to knowledge was seen in Experiment 1 as an enhanced frontocentral negativity (beginning approximately 300 msec) to exemplars missing a nonessential versus an essential feature, but this effect did not manifest when background knowledge was less task relevant (Experiment 2). Thus, similarity- and knowledge-based effects are separable, and the locus of knowledge effects varies with task demands but does not seem to arise from facilitated semantic access.