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Is the last word in each of these phrases an adverb or an adjective? How can we know?

love me tender
treat me nice
hold me tight

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They look like adjectives but act like adverbs. It's a little informal but is more and more common at least in AmE speech. – Mitch Mar 29 '14 at 2:04

We can know because grammar books define the parts of speech. An adverb (among other things) modifies a verb, expressing manner (e.g., gently). Adjectives modify nouns. In Love Me Tender, what is the subject, verb, direct object, and then what does that left-over word modify? Here's my take:

Love me tender: subject (implied): you; verb: love; direct object: me; left over word - does it modify you, me, or love?

Tender-you love me. (meh) You love tender-me. (good reason for loving me, but I don't think so.) You tender-love me. (sounds good to me! We usually say tenderly.)

Love me tender(ly)
love me sweet(ly),
never let me go.
You have made my life complete,
and I love you so.

Love me tender(ly),
love me true(ly),
all my dreams fulfilled.
For my darlin' I love you,
and I always will.

Love me tender(ly),
love me long(ok, you decide),
take me to your heart.
For it's there that I belong,
and we'll never part.

Love me tender(ly),
love me dear(ly),
tell me you are mine.
I'll be yours through all the years,
till the end of time.

Because young Elvis.

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And because it wouldn't fit the metre otherwise, of course. ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 28 '14 at 17:38
A grammar book I've got says that pink in The rose blushed pink is a predicative adjective. And I've seen an article saying that wide is indeterminate in Giggs shot wide . The answer 'because grammar books define the parts of speech' is not the whole story, though the usages here are flat adverbs. 'Tight' is probably the one of the three given by OP most commonly used as such. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 28 '14 at 20:53
That's very poetic. Ah, the argument against prescriptivism. I'm not a prescriptivist. But they do help. – medica Mar 28 '14 at 20:56
@JanusBahsJacquet got it... Elvis butchered the language (dropping ly) to fit the meter. A classic song, but don't take it as proper English. – Phil Perry Mar 28 '14 at 22:36
I've just arrived back here somehow. 'Tight' shows variability. In 'She held the little child tight', it is obviously adverbial, but in 'I was unable to hold it tight with just one hand', 'tight' may well be adjectival (= firmly together). I'd choose the -ly adverb rather than the flat one here to show adverbiality. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 9 '14 at 23:44

It is an adverb because it should read:

"Love me tenderly, love me slowly."

Tenderly and slowly are both describing the verb love.

Moden English usage frequently uses an adjectival form where there should correctly be an adverbial form. How many times have you heard this: He drove real slow.

If you want to hear grammatically correct lyrics, you should really listen to Sir Cliff.

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The fact that an increasing number of flat adverbs are used colloquially does not necessarily mean that it is correct to drop the -ly ending from an adverb at will. That would be treating the language cavalier. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 28 '14 at 20:59
The Language Cavalier? Is he the dude with the cape, plumed hat, and flowing curls who shouts, "Hi ho Prescriptive, away!"? – Phil Perry Mar 28 '14 at 22:34
You're thinking of the Cavalier Poets. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 28 '14 at 23:13
I wasn't really asking about correctness, which is a more complicated concept, I was asking about the syntax and semantics of those examples. – Mar Rojo Mar 31 '14 at 8:19
@Mar Rojo Before you can start sensibly analysing any structure, you must know where the present bounds of acceptability are. I'd say RoDaSm is over-prescriptive in his pronouncement here, as many people accept the song; I wouldn't use these flat adverbs in more formal registers though. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 9 '14 at 23:34

It is a typical characteristic of colloqial AmE ( American English) to use the adjective form after a verb instead of the adverb with the ending -ly. And the probability is high that this use is due to German influence. In German normal adjectives after a verb have the function of an adverb; there is no special adverb ending. The position after a verb clearly indicates the function of an adjective as adverb. BrE He speaks beautifully. AmE He speaks beautiful. (colloquial style) German Er spricht schön.

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There are enough people in Britain too who will say 'He speaks beautiful', but it is not due to 'German influence'. It is simply that they can't speak English properly. – WS2 Mar 28 '14 at 22:20
Since this has been a feature of English since before Shakespeare (one which has been largely lost in England but kept in America), I doubt it owes much to German influence. – Peter Shor Mar 29 '14 at 1:06
@WS2 Which would you use? Play the music low or Play the music lowly? – Araucaria Mar 22 at 12:41
@Araucaria Play it softly. (I wouldn't use either low or lowly). – WS2 Mar 22 at 12:45
@PeterShor You have clearly not been to Norfolk. They have never heard of adverbs. – WS2 Mar 22 at 12:46

Based on the rest of the lyric, where "nice" and "tight" are both adverbs, "tender" should also be an adverb.

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Tender, nice, tight are all adverbs because they are describing the verbs love, treat, hold.

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