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The nature of shanties makes categorization very difficult. Collectors of the early 20th century settled on two broad categories: heaving songs and hauling songs, referring to the type of work best suited to the song. Over time, these categories have been subdivided and other descriptions have been introduced. The popularity of "forecastle ballads" or "modern shanties" necessitates broad new categories.

In most cases here, categorization has been adopted from available print sources.