Please tell me the difference in nuance between the following two sentences.

  1. It was lucky for her that a passing policeman heard her cries for help and was able to rescue her from the canal.

  2. It was lucky for her that a policeman passing heard her cries for help and was able to rescue her from the canal.

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    There's none, really. However, "a policeman passing by" would be better. – Mick Dec 20 '16 at 4:47

A passing policeman is one on patrol; he is in the act of carrying out his duties as a policeman. It implies a future interaction between the observer, which was coincidental.

A policeman passing by implies an incidental observation; per policy, a uniformed officer is an officer on duty. He would not pass by, then, if called or if he observed a crime in progress.

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"a passing policeman" means the same thing as "a policeman passing by".

"<someone> passing" (without the "by", and without a direct object) often is short for "<someone> passing away", which is a euphemism for "<someone> dying". This euphemism is used by many Christians; it implies that the person who died has "moved on" to "the afterlife" (such as "heaven", "hell", or "purgatory"). Obituaries and funeral services often use this euphemism.

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    It is blatantly clear that the policeman mentioned in the OP is alive and well, the progressive form is used, hence the tag obituaries is wholly inappropriate. But have it your way. – Mari-Lou A Dec 20 '16 at 7:29
  • @Mari-LouA -- The title of the question asks for the difference between "a passing police man" [sic] and "a policeman passing", and the learner asks about differences in "nuance". To a native speaker, "a passing policeman" strongly implies "a cop on his regular patrol", whereas "<someone> passing" (without further clarification) implies "<someone> died". A complete answer should tell the learner that the second word order is often used in obituary-type statements. Furthermore, if the sentence appeared in a ghost story, the two versions could have very different meanings. – Jasper Dec 20 '16 at 16:26
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    I don't think "a <somebody> passing" implies a death at all, absent specific context. In fact, I can't think of a way that I would use that phrase where it would refer to someone's death. – stangdon Dec 20 '16 at 18:22
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    'passing' is also a very well known footballing term (passing the ball). Using that logic, can we surmise that the policeman happened to be punting a football down the street at the time the crime was taking place? You seem to be forcing the meaning of the word in a very specific context, where clearly it is not the case... – mike Dec 21 '16 at 4:58

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