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The sentence is like this:

Governments must ensure that their major cities receive the financial support they need in order to thrive.

I'm not sure about the to thrive. Does this sentence mean:

(1) To make the major cities thrive, governments need to support them financially.

Or

(2) To make the governments themselves thrive, governments need to support major cities financially.

In other word, which one is modified by to thrive? Is it Governments or cities and why? Does anyone have ideas about this?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

From a purely syntactical analysis, it could be both.

The only thing that can tell us which is the better fit is semantics. In the example you give, even semantics do not make it clear:

  • Major cities are likely to thrive if they receive the necessary financial support;
  • Governments who spend the right amount of money on (making) the major cities (thrive) are more likely to be popular governments and thus be reelected—which I would say is a pretty good definition for ‘thrive’ as applied to a government.

I would consider it more likely that the cities are what’s being talked about, but the other option cannot be ruled out without more context.

If the major cities receiving financial support were to be swapped with something else, this interpretation could swing the other way:

Governments must ensure that their core constituents feel they get the political support they need in order to thrive.

In this case, it is almost unambiguously the government that is thriving (to me, at least), since political support is rarely something an individual person needs in order to thrive.

If you want to avoid ambiguity entirely, I would simply phrase the sentence in a different way altogether, for example:

In order to ensure that major cities thrive, governments must ensure that they receive the financial support they need.

(This is of course also a bit ambiguous technically, since ‘they’ can still refer back to the governments, rather than the cities—but that would make for a very odd sentence with a lot of semantic jumps. There is at least far less risk of ambiguity in this version.)

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There are four clauses, because there are four main verbs (boldfaced;
I've also added the deleted relative pronoun in the third clause,
the infinitive subject in the last one, and referential indices for the plural NPs)

Governments₁ must ensure
that their₁ major cities₂ receive the financial support
(which) they₂ need
in order (for them₂,₁) to thrive.

There are some potential attachment ambiguities for the plural NPs,
but this is clearly the meaning that's intended.
The subject of thrive could be either they₂ or they₁;
since it's deleted, we'll never know which was intended, but probably both.

As to the relation of the infinitive, it modifies the prepositional phrase in order,
as part of the purpose adverbial idiom (in order) to.

In order is in parentheses above because it's optional, leading to bare purpose infinitives, like

  • I stopped to smoke = I stopped (doing something) in order to smoke.

This does not mean

  • I stopped smoking. = I no longer smoke.

since stop takes a gerund complement, but not an infinitive complement.

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For the sake of completion, you could add a 3 to “financial support” and “which”, too. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 9 '13 at 18:25
    
Yes, I could, but I don't have to make it machine-washable. –  John Lawler Oct 9 '13 at 18:28
    
Note that leaving off the subject of to thrive also allows for fronting while likely changing the reference of its subject: In order to thrive, governments must ... –  John Lawler Oct 9 '13 at 19:01

Definitely 1.

a) the closest word is "cities". b) it would not make great sense to thrive by spending money.

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2  
Of course it makes sense to thrive by spending money. It's called investment. Successful companies do it all the time. –  Peter Shor Oct 9 '13 at 13:10

The conundrum here is that the adjunct of purpose in order to thrive comes after other modifiers (the complement that their major cities receive the financial support they need with its own subcomplements and adjuncts) just as adjuncts of purpose should, so one might feel the reading (2) is the correct one. However, more than one noun in this sentence is modifiable by that adjunct, thus another rule vies for the command: a modifying clause (in this case, a to-infinitival clause functioning as an adjunct of purpose) should be placed as close as possible to the sentence constituent it modifies.

Which "rule" is stronger? I strongly believe and feel, the second one, so I understand the sentence to have the reading (1).

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