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Half an hour later, Harry, who couldn’t believe his luck, was sitting in the back of the Dursleys’ car with Piers and Dudley, on the way to the zoo for the first time in his life.

From Harry Potter

Does "in his life" modify "time" or the verb?

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"In his life" is a constituent of the phrase "for the first time in his life".

It wouldn't make sense to consider it as phrase that modifies the verb. Try to imagine what "Harry was sitting ... in his life" would mean.

It is often not useful to consider phrases in terms of "what does it modify". There are lots of examples in which there is no particular difference in meaning, and learners can get blocked by worrying about structure instead of meaning. Ask yourself if you would understand the phrase differently if you understood the structure differently. If the meaning is then same, then don't worry. If the meaning is different, but only one sense fits the context, then you have worked out the answer. If the meanings are different, but both senses fit the context, then you might have an ambiguous sentence.

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    "in his life" does seem to modify "first time". You could have "for the first time that week" or "for the first time since his mother died" or "For the first time ever", or just "for the first time" (implying "ever"), suggesting that "for the first time" can be optionally modified.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 18 at 10:24
  • @StuartF That's a good question. I'm wondering too.
    – user183853
    Commented Jan 18 at 11:30
  • Rather than modify, I'd say it qualifies "first time". @StuartF
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 18 at 15:54
  • @I'mABot It would be a strange and contorted sentence order, but for example, if I wanted to say "I'm sitting for the first time in a car," then to keep my meaning clear I should add commas: "I'm sitting, for the first time, in a car." (But it would be more natural just to say "I'm sitting in a car for the first time.") Commented Jan 18 at 16:19
  • @StuartF: I could argue that "in his life" modifies "first time" (without the "for the", which has a different role of relating "first time in his life" to the rest of the sentence). For example, I can say I am the first person to graduate college in my family. "In my family" puts a scope on "first [person]", so as to avoid me stating that I'm the first person ever to graduate college in all of history. Similarly, "in his life" ensure that it's clear that we're not saying that (a) Harry is the first person to ever go to a zoo and (b) this applies broader than just the current plot's timeline.
    – Flater
    Commented Jan 18 at 23:00

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