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I recently stumbled upon an eight-year old comment by Araucaria in which they made the following statement in a comment that was part of a discussion about post-positional phrases:

Phrases like 100 years ago from when? and Our honeymoon was ten years ago from next Tuesday seem to be viable, interestingly.

That statement suggests doubt about whether the subject phrases are viable. They certainly are viable, but their internal construction is not clear.

Generally (the prime exception being cases of fronting), a PP modifies or complements a preceding phrase, which usually is the nearest preceding VP or an intervening NP. As examples: In will play on the beach of my youth, the PP of my youth adjectivally modifies the NP the beach. In will play on the beach next week, the PP next week adverbially modifies the VP will play.

In ten years ago next Tuesday, we have an interesting syntactic puzzle. There are two PPs. The first is headed by the post-positional ago, and the second is headed conventionally by next. Without the latter PP, it would be clear that the complement of ago is ten years.

How is this phrase structured? Does the PP next Tuesday look beyond the intervening preposition, ago, to adjectivally modify the NP ten years? Does the PP next Tuesday adverbially modify the entirety of the PP ten years ago? Or is there some better analysis?

A semantic analysis is somewhat revealing. The phrase describes a point in time that occurs ten years prior to the Tuesday immediately following the point in time at which the phrase is stated. We understand the preposition ago as being an instruction to count backwards in time. We understand the NP ten years as telling us how far back to count. Normally, ago implies that the counting should start from now, the present day. Here, we understand next Tuesday as specifying a different point in time from which to begin counting.

It seems clear that the phrase next Tuesday does not modify the duration ten years. That sort of modification would be non-sensical. Similarly, next Tuesday cannot properly be understood to modify the concept of the point in time that happens to be ten years prior to now. That leaves the possibility that next Tuesday modifies the preposition ago.

The semantics of the phrase suggest that the preposition ago takes two arguments, one argument that specifies the starting point for counting and the other argument, usually implied to be now, that specifies how far back to count. However, our traditional model of PPs allows for only one argument (the complement of the PP), not two arguments--except when a PP is pre-modified by an adverbial.

PPs can be modified by adverbials. Take, for instance, nearly in the soup. Based on semantics, the AdvP nearly does not seem to modify the NP the soup. Rather, it seems to modify either the entirety of the PP in the soup or solely the preposition in. My sense of the meaning is that nearly changes the meaning of in before in acts upon its complement the soup. This suggests in is taking two arguments.

So it seems that nearly acts as an adverbial adjunct to the preposition in. In parallel, perhaps it is valid to analyze the NP next Tuesday as functioning as an adverbial adjunct to the preposition ago.

On this basis, I argue that prepositions are capable of taking two arguments. One argument is the usual prepositional phrase complement that imbues the preposition with substance. The other argument, an optional argument, can modify the meaning of the preposition itself.

In the case of nearly in, the meaning of in takes on a distinct change. It no longer means in. It means something like, not in but in an area that is close to being in. Similarly, in the case of ago next Tuesday, the meaning of ago is changed. It no longer is ago measured from the implicit now. It is ago measured from an explicit next Tuesday. That modified form of ago is what then acts upon the complement ten years.

Thus, ten years ago next Tuesday essentially has the same structure as nearly in the soup, but the sequence of the members of the structure are reversed: Complement-Preposition-Adjunct vs. Adjunct-Preposition-Complement. Perhaps, when dealing with a post-positional, that sort of inversion can be expected and may even be necessary. Absent the preposition intervening between the complement and the adjunct, the phrase might be quite difficult to parse.

That takes me full circle to the sentence in the title of this post: Our nation declared independence 246 years ago tomorrow. I believe tomorrow modifies the preposition ago.

While I am sure papers must exist on this subject, I have not yet found one. Any suggestions or comments would be appreciated.

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    I would advise reducing the length of the question, it shows research and effort but you ask a lot of questions together. Users are encouraged to answer their own questions too, so perhaps consider turning your reflections and analysis into a single answer and posting that.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 4, 2022 at 7:29
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    In, for example, "Our wedding was [ten years ago tomorrow]", the bracketed "ago" phrase functions as predicative complement to "be". "Ten years" is object complement of "ago", and "tomorrow" is probably best analysed as modifier of "ago".
    – BillJ
    Jul 4, 2022 at 10:50
  • The Sentence seems grammatically "incorrect" !! I think that should be Either "By tomorrow, our nation would have declared independence 246 years ago" OR "Our nation declared independence 246 years ago from tomorrow" !!
    – Prem
    Jul 4, 2022 at 14:04
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    I'm considering the paraphrase '10 years ago measuring backwards from tomorrow / Thursday' for '10 years ago from tomorrow / Thursday'. Here, the nouns tomorrow / Thursday etc specify the temporal zero chosen. Jul 4, 2022 at 14:33
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    @BillJ's got it. The phrase <TimeLength> ago <TimePoint> (5 years ago yesterday, 100 years ago next Wednesday) is a very common construction to refer to a fixed length of past time with a nearpresent endpoint. Jul 4, 2022 at 15:23

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Our nation declared independence 246 years ago tomorrow.

I'm not convinced that "246 years ago tomorrow" is, as you seem to be positing, a syntactic constituent. You can, after all, rearrange them to get "Tomorrow our nation declared independence 246 years ago"; that version sounds acceptable to me, if a bit awkward. It seems to me that (syntactically) we have to take "tomorrow" and "246 years ago" to both be adjuncts in the clause (in more traditional terminology, both are acting adverbially, modifying declared).

Things get a bit more complicated when you add a from:

Our nation declared independence 246 years ago from tomorrow.

Here it seems obvious that "246 years ago from tomorrow" is a constituent. Likewise with "Ten years ago from when" in your previous example. It seems we should take both "246 years" and "from tomorrow" to be complements of ago. There's nothing exceptional about a preposition taking two complements: consider the word across in "Across the road from the post office there is a children's playground" (Huddleston & Pullum (2002), p. 641). Here the word across has two complements: one is a NP ("the road") and the other is a PP ("from the post office"). The only unusual thing is that the preposition ago follows, rather than precedes, its first complement--as it does when it has only that complement, e.g. in "246 years ago" on its own (ibid p. 632). For this reason, we have "246 years ago from tomorrow" rather than "ago 246 years from tomorrow" (as with across).

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  • Your reformulation of the sentence does not work for me at all and simply does not mean the same thing. [We also need to be very careful with ago. It is not the case that the measure-phrase complement of ago is a normal type of prepositional complement but in a different place. It has the same semantic contribution to the PP as a measure phrase modifier does in other ones: ten feet behind the line, for example, but it happens to be mandatory in the case of ago. It isn't an anchor to which another NP's oriented. The anchor for ago is usually an unexpressed now or from-PP]. Nov 17, 2023 at 11:12

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