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The use of ballad as a technical term in poetry is ambiguous - at different periods, it has been used differently. It has meant 'a dancing (French baller, Latin and Italian ballare) song' - an accompaniment to which people can dance; and a simple sentimental song. Its use in modern (~20th-21st centuries) literary studies is defined by Fowler as a "simple narrative poem [...] in short stanzas, such as Chevy Chase". (See ballad stanza for more detail.) To be precise, a writer may be best advised to use the term traditional ballad to mean this term. It is important not to confuse ballad, pronounced with the stress on the first syllable 'BALL-erd', IPA: /'bæ ləd/, with the more French term for a more complex verse from, the ballade, pronounced in the French way, with the stress on the second syllable 'bel-AHD', IPA: /bæ 'lɑːd/. The ballade is a more litersary form; the ballad is a simpler form, most truly found in the oral tradition.

The 'short stanza' of Fowler's definition is usually taken as 'the ballad stanza', but it is not necessary for a traditional ballad to be written in four-lined stanzas. The ballad Edward, Edward, a fine piece of sinister dialogue which may be found in The Oxford Book of Ballads and Child, is composed in its own pattern: the first two lines are the same, with a refrain of "Edward, Edward", as the Mother asks questions: the third line is some variant of "My dear son, now tell me oh"; then Edward (the son) answers in a broadly similar pattern of repetition. This comes with an effect of great emotional climax, as each verse follows the slow build-up created by the repetition. The poem is a ballad; but it is not written in the ballad stanza.

"Why does your brand sae drap wi' bluid, Edward, Edward?
Why does your brand sae drap wi' bluid -
My dear son now tell me, oh."
"Oh I hae kill'd my hawk sae guid, Mither, Mither;
Oh I hae kill'd my hawk sae guid,
And I had nae mair but he, oh."
In the sixteenth century an effect very similar to that of the ballad stanza was achieved by printing rhyming fourteeners, where the fourteen feet of the regular ballad stanza are divided not into four lines, two of four feet (tetrameters) and two of three (trimeters), but two of seven feet (heptameters). Instead of rhyming a b c b, they then rhyme a a, with an internal rhyme.