The interpretation and understanding of acid-base dysfunction has recently been revisited. The 'traditional' approach developed from the pioneering work of Henderson and Hasselbalch and is still the most widely used in clinical practice. There are a number of problems identified with this approach, however. The 'modern' approach derives from Stewart's work in physical chemistry. In this review we describe the origins of the traditional approach and discusses related concepts. We then describe Stewart's approach, including how it is derived and how it may be used to classify acid-base derangements. The applications of Stewart's approach to clinical scenarios in intensive care is then discussed briefly before we examine some published clinical studies based on his work.