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Specifically in a case like this:

私が迷っているうちに、次第に登校する生徒の数は少なくなり、予鈴が鳴った。

Does 次第に modify 登校する or 少なくなり? I thought that maybe 登校する生徒の数 is considered as one unit and thus 次第に modifies 少なくなり. Is that impossible?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Yes, 次第に modifies 少なくなり in that sentence, nothing else.

One cannot say 次第に登校する in the first place anyway because "going to school = 登校する" is not something one can do "little by little = 次第に". 次第に少なくなる, however, is a natural-sounding phrase because the number of something (students in this case) CAN decrease little by little.

You are also correct in considering 登校する生徒の数 as one unit because it is one noun phrase.

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Just to be clear, does that mean, using this sentence as an example, there's not a conceivable situation in which 次第に could be a different adverb that makes sense with both 登校する and 少なくなる, but it still applies to 少なくなる? Would the adverb then modify 登校する? Or would it be up to the reader to decide to which the adverb applies given that situation? –  ElSigh Nov 27 '13 at 20:34
    
Just to be more clear in what I'm asking, is it because 次第に doesn't make sense with 登校する that it doesn't apply to it? So, for instance, in "今は、私がもっとも会うのが辛い人だった。" since もっとも会う doesn't make sense, would もっとも apply to 辛い? –  ElSigh Nov 27 '13 at 20:47
    
Even if such an adverb existed, you still would need to decide which verb it modified. Which of the two verbs appears first in the sentence does not matter. Japanese word order is MUCH more flexible than English, meaning that there can be so many words between an adverb and the verb that it modifies. –  Tokyo Nagoya Nov 28 '13 at 9:53
    
Yes, exactly. Knowing what modifies what in a sentence is of utmost importance because one mistake in that process will lead to the misunderstanding of the sentence structure and cost you your comprehension of the entire sentence. –  Tokyo Nagoya Nov 28 '13 at 9:54
    
That's very good to know. Thanks for your responses. –  ElSigh Nov 28 '13 at 11:42
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