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Let's say you came across 2 ambulances and a firetruck going to a big car accident on a freeway. And then you told it to your co-worker.

"There was a car accident on the freeway. I saw 2 ambulances and a firetruck driving by."

What does the "driving by" mean?

I interpret this as the two ambulances and the fire truck on the way to the scene while the speaker is moving away (detouring) from the car accident. However, there may be other options for this that is why I am asking this such as, the rescue mobiles are on the same direction with the speaker towards the car accident area or they(ambulances) going on and off, etc.

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  • Did you make that sentence? If so, what does it mean to you. If not, where are you quoting from. What would you suppose it means?
    – James K
    Dec 28, 2019 at 9:23
  • I interpret this as the two ambulances and the fire truck on the way to the scene while the speaker is moving away (detouring) from the car accident. However, there may be other options for this that is why I am asking this such as, the rescue mobiles are on the same direction with the speaker towards the car accident area or they(ambulances) going on and off, etc.
    – John Arvin
    Dec 28, 2019 at 16:14

2 Answers 2

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Formally there is more than one interpretation. Pragmatically only a couple of readings are possible.

While it could mean "driving by the accident", that doesn't seem likely. Fire engines and ambulances drive to the accident, they don't usually drive past it. That interpretation could be possible if the point you are making is "The ambulance didn't stop!"

There was an accident and some people were hurt. We were all relieved when we saw the blue lights of the ambulance, but it just drove by. Perhaps there was another crash or some other emergency. Anyway, we had to wait another 20 minutes for our ambulance.

It is far more likely that it means "driving by me". What it doesn't say is whether the ambulance was going in the same direction or the opposite direction. It is even possible that the person is just sitting by the side of the road watching and not in car. Other context might make it clear.

We were stuck in a queue on the freeway when we saw an ambulance driving by. It took another hour and thirty minutes before the police reopened the road. It must have been pretty bad. (implicitly the accident is ahead, and the ambulance is going in the same direction, towards the accident.)

It is also possible that the ambulance could be on the other carriageway going in the opposite direction.

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  • It boils down to this phrasal verb a bit confusing cause it has many possibilities. Thx.
    – John Arvin
    Dec 29, 2019 at 4:28
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'Driving by' can be likened a short form of 'driving by me', or 'driving past (me)'.
edit: I couldn't find a related definition for 'drive by', because of the other meaning of the word, but I did find a similar one for 'pass-by'. From Merriam-Webster:

Pass By
:to happen without being noticed or acted upon by (someone)
Don't let this opportunity pass (you) by!

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  • This answer would be better with a link to an online dictionary (or two) that defines that usage.
    – CJ Dennis
    Dec 28, 2019 at 23:27

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