The word ‘past’ is a preposition and is commonly used in the construction of adverbials of place:
John walked past the bedroom window.
- It can be used adverbially:
The fire engine roared past making a terrible noise.
- It can be used as a noun:
History is the study of the past.
- It can be used as an adjective:
Past events show us the mistakes we have made.
It is related to the verb ‘pass’:
All the students passed the exam.
(= got a satisfactory result)
We passed a 1936 M.G. on the road to Hendon.
(= to overtake it, or to move from a position behind in front of it).
He drove past the cinema vs. He passed the cinema in his car.
In terms of meaning, these two sentences are effectively the same. The first one contains the ‘driving’ element in the verbs and the ‘place’ element in the prepositional phrase ‘past the cinema’, here used adverbially to tell us where he drove. The combination of the verb and adverbial parts of the sentence express the relative place and movements of car and building.
The second sentence does things somewhat differently. Here the relative position of speaker and building are expressed verbally rather tan adverbially, while the means of locomotion is expressed adverbially and not verbally as in the first sentence.
Source: Martin Eayrs’ column Focus on English publised in The Buenos Aires Herald from 1989 through 1995 approx.