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  • Why do you ride a horse and a bike, rather than drive it?
  • Why do you pilot a plane, rather than drive it?
  • Why do you drive a car, rather than pilot it?

You can go for a ride in a car, but only if you're not the one driving it. As you ride a horse, does that mean the horse it really in charge? Follow that logic to riding a bike, does that mean the bike is in charge?

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    Perhaps for the same reason as why we say strong coffee and not powerful coffee? Or for that matter, why say head ache and not head pain? – Prasad Shrivatsa Mar 25 '14 at 12:54
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    @Prasad, are you implying that English is less than logical? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 25 '14 at 12:58
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    Let's take a ride in my car. One of us will certainly drive it – mplungjan Mar 25 '14 at 13:00
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    Because, before there were internal combustion engines, people rode horses, drove carriages, and piloted ships. – Peter Shor Mar 25 '14 at 13:23
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    @Kris: you have to look at the etymologies. For example, pilot comes from the Greek word pedon, meaning steering oar. The word drive for carriages came from the fact that you drove the horses that pull the carriage; it's the same root as the cattle drives they had in the Old West. – Peter Shor Mar 25 '14 at 15:37
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If you look at the definitions of ride and drive:

drive

  1. to cause and guide the movement of (a vehicle, an animal, etc.): to drive a car; to drive a mule.

  2. to convey in a vehicle: She drove them to the station.


ride

  1. to sit on and manage a horse or other animal in motion; be carried on the back of an animal.

  2. to be borne along on or in a vehicle or other kind of conveyance.

This doesn't really provide an answer aside from, "because that's how we do it." The two distinctions you called out aren't even the weird ones:

  • You can drive a mule but only without sitting on it. (If you sit on it, that's riding.)
  • You can ride an animal while someone else drives it (from the ground).
  • You can drive animals while riding on a different animal.

As far as vehicles, the distinction is usually how you position your legs.

  • You ride on bicycles, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, rockets, railings
  • You ride in cars, trucks, side-cars attached to motorcycles, shopping carts
  • You drive cars, trucks, tanks and most other things you ride in (as long as you have control; so you don't really drive a shopping cart.)

Pilot is simply reserved for airplanes (airships), ships, spaceships and so on:

pilot — a person who steers a ship.

A more modern complication is what you call controlling a vehicle without being present:

  • You drive an RC car
  • You drive an RC motorcycle
  • You pilot or guide a missile
  • You merely fly an RC airplane

As with most issues surrounding terms like these, there is often debate about the appropriateness of one term over the other. The above is a good snapshot of opinions but you could spend quite a bit of time arguing for or against the particulars. The most debatable:

I drive my motorcycle to work.

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The answer to your question, in one word, is idiom. There may have been some distinction between ride and drive at some time in the past. You certainly drive horses if you are controlling where they go without being on their backs, but the use of the "proper" word comes down to idiom. If you are hospitalized in the US, you are "in the hospital;" if you are hospitalized in the UK, you are "in hospital." Same illness, same facility. Why the difference? Idiom.

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    I thought that in the UK, you queued up to buy the tickets. – Peter Shor Mar 25 '14 at 13:25
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    ... Unless you buy them online. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 25 '14 at 13:28
  • As I understand it, you have a choice. Yikes! I just ngramed and I may be wrong. – Michael Owen Sartin Mar 25 '14 at 13:30
  • I've never heard 'stand on line', but am quite familiar with 'stand in line', and Oldham is in the UK. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 25 '14 at 13:30
  • I just blew it! I should leave comments on the King's English to the King's subjects. – Michael Owen Sartin Mar 25 '14 at 13:32

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