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How would you describe the difference in modifications a PP can make to a VP i.e.

[I want to visit them][before this time]

versus

[I want to [visit them before this time]]

I understand there is very little difference in this context and I'm struggling to see how you would justify placing the PP in one place of a syntax tree versus another

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    Your second example is essentially correct, though the marker "to" belongs with the subordinate clause: "I want [to visit them before this time]". "Want" is a catenative verb and the subordinate infinitival clause "to visit them before this time" is its catenative complement. The PP "before this time" is a temporal adjunct within the subordinate clause. – BillJ Nov 13 '17 at 18:36
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    "before this time" could modify either the VP "visit them" or the VP "want to visit them", and there are two corresponding interpretations (though the first interpretation describes an odd situtation in which your wants come and go). English ambiguities of this sort are commonplace. – Greg Lee Nov 13 '17 at 23:00
  • In case you're interested, I've put up a tree diagram which shows that the PP "before this time" is a modifier in the structure of the subordinate clause. – BillJ Nov 14 '17 at 16:25
  • @Greg Lee - I think you meant modifying "want to ..." is the odd one. That interpretation could be forced (weakly) with a comma after 'them', or (strongly) by fronting the adverbial phrase. – amI Dec 14 '17 at 23:00
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    @amI, yes, you're right that I meant to refer to the second interpretation, not the first. However, fronting the "before" phrase does not eliminate the ambiguity, for me. – Greg Lee Dec 15 '17 at 5:32
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I'd say that the adjunct "before this time" belongs not in the matrix clause, but in the catenative complement clause, as shown in this tree:

enter image description here

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  • In addition, "visit them" is a VP (it could be replaced by "do so"), and "to visit them before this time" is a NP (it could be replaced by "it/that/this"). – Greg Lee Dec 16 '17 at 20:25
  • I wouldn't go along with what you say, Greg. While it's true that the to that marks infinitivals derives historically from the preposition to (notice the similarity between I went to the doctor and I went to see the doctor) it long ago lost its prepositional properties. It is unique since no other item has exactly the same grammatical properties. It's very widely accepted as a member of the subordinator category, a special marker for VP's of infinitival clauses. – BillJ Dec 17 '17 at 18:12
  • What does the category of "to" have to do with my comment? I don't see any relationship. Maybe I should construct examples for you to illustrate the evidence I gave. (1) "I will visit them, and I want to do so before Wednesday." [do so = visit them] (2) "Shirley wants me to visit them before Wednesday, and I want that, too." [that = to visit them before Wednesday] – Greg Lee Dec 17 '17 at 20:30
  • @GregLee Because I recall you saying that it's a preposition. There is no satisfactory evidence to support your view that infinitival clauses are actually NPs. It's an absurd assertion, and one that is not held by any grammarian I know. – BillJ Dec 18 '17 at 7:06
  • I'm sure I never said that "to" of the infinitive was a preposition. But I still don't see the relevance. Treating some for-to complements as NPs has been standard in classical transformational grammar since at least Peter Rosenbaum's MIT dissertation "The Grammar of English Predicate Complement Constructions". But you didn't need to know that, since I gave you the evidence above. Please -- more evidence and less rhetoric. – Greg Lee Dec 18 '17 at 7:20
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Compare it to this:

[I want [them to visit me [before this time]]]
[I want [them to visit me] [before this time]]

I drew you the trees of your two and these two examples:

Your examples:

enter image description here edit: (PRO) or PRO is a typo; both are the "semantically controlled" but phonologically null pronoun PRO (ntbc with pro with is slightly different)

edit: (PRO) in the above tree and PRO in this one should both be the same (typo). PRO is the "semantically controlled" but phonologically null pronoun. Here it refers to "I", that is, its (accusative) form "me" (as in "I want me/myself to ...")

Compare your examples to this:

enter image description here enter image description here

Try the last ones with "wanted" or "will want" instead. The meaning is different.

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