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When driving, you should keep a certain distance from a vehicle ahead of you (or in front of you)

I would like to use "a preceding vehicle" instead of "a vehicle ahead of you" because "a vehicle ahead of you" is longer. Is it acceptable?

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    In this case, I like the longer version better. The phrase preceding vehicle is simply not idiomatic (at least, not in AmE).
    – J.R.
    Apr 15, 2017 at 23:53
  • books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Khan
    Apr 16, 2017 at 6:20
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    @J.R. Similarly in Britain. One never hears "preceding vehicle" used, though it is clear what it means. Usual terms are "the vehicle in front", or "the vehicle ahead".
    – WS2
    Apr 16, 2017 at 8:19
  • Here is the term used in The Washington Post: "A more important issue seems to be whether each person starts out promptly when the light turns green and keeps up with the preceding car through the intersection." Here is The L.A. Times: "Shake your fist at God and the old lady in front of you who allows wide gaps between her and the preceding car" articles.latimes.com/2004/mar/29/entertainment/et-martinez29 You can find this use of the term all over the place in North American English. Even if it's not "common," it's certainly "acceptable." Apr 16, 2017 at 11:40
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    @rama9: You're only going to get opinions on this question unless you provide a context for the statement you're trying to make, and full example sentence. Apr 16, 2017 at 13:26

3 Answers 3

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No, it is not an idiomatic or acceptable substitute for "the car ahead", for "a preceding vehicle" does not mean "the car in front of you as seen from your location behind it".

A car can precede yours through a toll gate, say. It goes through sooner than yours does. To precede is a spatio-temporal absolute.

P.S. "A preceding vehicle" lacks origo, or "deictic center". The idiomatic deictic meaning of the car ahead places the driver at the deictic center. "A preceding vehicle" does not do this. Although "a preceding vehicle" would be understood to refer to a vehicle ahead of the driver's vehicle, the reference is not made from the driver's perspective but from a neutral, objective perspective.

"Pay attention that you don't get too close to the preceding vehicle" is a space oddity. A parent wouldn't tell a teen learning to drive "Don't get too close to the preceding vehicle". "The preceding vehicle" is the sort of thing we find on accident reports written by the police.

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  • While a car can precede you through a toll gate, "the preceding car" would still mean the car that directly preceded you, or came most immediately before you. Similarly, on the road, "the preceding car" would be the one that comes most immediately before you on the road. In the example given, it is the car directly preceding you on the road that you want to "keep a certain distance from" Apr 16, 2017 at 1:34
  • @RaceYouAnytime: Please note the phrase OP wants to use: "a preceding vehicle". That is not idiomatic, and it does not mean "the car ahead". Also, please note "as seen from you location behind it". Apr 16, 2017 at 11:10
  • to say that this usage "is not correct or acceptable," is an overstatement at least, and outright false at most. It's perfectly acceptable, it is only a matter of taste and popularity of the term in this context. Deixsis has no bearing on the use of preceding in this context. As for article choice, the OP could change the phrase to "the preceding vehicle" and that would be enough to denote the car moving immediately before the driver -- ahead of them. "Preceding" and "ahead of" are in fact synonyms: thesaurus.com/browse/preceding?s=t Apr 16, 2017 at 11:28
  • I've changed it to read "not an idiomatic or acceptable substitute for the car ahead. Apr 16, 2017 at 12:00
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    I disagree with your conclusions, but rather than argue further I'll let others take a look. Apr 16, 2017 at 12:01
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That sentence is acceptable. There are many technical articles and patent applications that use "preceding vehicles" when discussing technology for detecting cars ahead of a principal car.

Another option would be to remove "of you" and write:

When driving, you should keep a certain distance from the vehicle ahead.

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  • Interesting. TRomano says no, but apparently this use of "preceding" has become a thing since the advent of self-driving technology. However the ELL student should be aware this isn't common usage (yet) and while it would be appropriate in a technical article, it might not make sense in casual conversation.
    – Andrew
    Apr 16, 2017 at 1:29
  • @Andrew please see my comment on TRomano's answer. To reiterate, "the preceding car" relative to a driver is the one that comes "immediately before" it, whether through a toll gate or on the road. While it's not a common term in reference to cars, it would make sense to me in casual conversation as a native English speaker. Apr 16, 2017 at 1:37
  • You are missing the point I made about deixis. Those technical articles are using the term "a preceding vehicle" as I indicated, as spatio-temporal absolutes, which is not at all how we use the phrase "the car ahead". Apr 16, 2017 at 11:14
  • Moreover, the title of that technical article is written by a non-native speaker (note "on curve [sic] road") Apr 16, 2017 at 11:19
  • @TRomano The examples are not limited to technical articles. Here is the term used in The Washington Post: "A more important issue seems to be whether each person starts out promptly when the light turns green and keeps up with the preceding car through the intersection." Here is The L.A. Times: "Shake your fist at God and the old lady in front of you who allows wide gaps between her and the preceding car" articles.latimes.com/2004/mar/29/entertainment/et-martinez29 You can find this use of the term all over the place. Apr 16, 2017 at 11:38
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Yes, you can use the word preceding as an adjective preceding something like a vehicle to mean front or ahead, but that's far less common. You usually use the phrase "in front" or "ahead" as follows:

".......keep a certain distance from the vehicle in front".

"....... keep a certain distance from the vehicle ahead".

You can also use the front as an adjective as follows, but it's not so commin.

"....... keep a certain distance from the front vehicle".

BTW, you can also say "....keep your distance from the vehicle in front/ahead".

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