It is generally agreed in the nursing literature that the maintenance of patient dignity is an important element of nursing care that is highly valued by patients. Despite this, dignity is seldom defined and there are few guidelines that nurses may use in their practice to safeguard individual patients' dignity. This phenomenological study aimed to uncover patients' and nurses' perceptions of dignity, formulate a definition of dignity based on the experience of patients and nurses, and identify nursing practices that maintain or compromise patient dignity. The study found that the characteristics nurses associated with dignity were many and varied. Important elements in the meaning the nurses ascribed to the notion of patient dignity were the elements of respect, privacy, control, advocacy and time. The themes which emerged from the patient interviews were similar to those which emerged from the interviews with nurses. The characteristics that patients attributed to dignity and its maintenance included respect, privacy, control, choice, humour and matter-of-factness.