‘the front car’, ‘the back car’

Often when we are out driving, my wife says things like ‘The front car is too slow’ or ‘The back car is too close’, viz ‘the car in front of us’ and ‘the car behind us’. A few nights ago we picked her niece up at the railway station. Just before she got into the car she said something in Korean we couldn’t hear. After she got into the car, she said ‘The boy in the front car is Korean’, and she’d been speaking to him. So there’s obviously something Korean English or Konglish about the construction.

I asked my wife what she’d say in Korean, and she said 앞차 (ap cha) and 뒤차 (dwi cha), which are simply ‘front car’ and ‘back/rear/behind car’ (there is no equivalent to the in Korean. If the aim is to keep it simple, stupid, then you can’t get much simpler than that.
Firstly, does anyone ever say ‘front car’ or ‘back car’ in English? Yes, but only in reference to trains, roller coasters and convoys of cars, or with seat, door or wheel.

Secondly, exactly what is the grammar of those phrases in English? behind is a preposition and can follow a noun and be followed by a pronoun. front is a noun, so can’t follow another noun or be followed by a pronoun, so we need the two extra prepositions. An alternative, ahead, is a adjective which can follow a noun,* but can’t be followed by a pronoun, so we’d need ‘the car ahead of us’. The equivalent preposition to behind is before, but ‘the car before us’ sounds very formal. If I used it at all, I would use it in the context of stop/start traffic, not flowing traffic.

For what it’s worth, Google Ngrams shows that ‘car in front of us’ is far more common than ‘car ahead of us’, which is far more common than ‘car before us’.

I’ll probably give up ‘correcting’ my wife when she says ‘the front car’ or ‘the back car’. It’s clear what she means, and she’s not likely to change that part of her English in the near future. On the other hand, I have just learned two new Korean phrases.

*In fact, it is a rather rare kind of adjective which cannot precede a noun: *the ahead car.


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