The circulatory control system is driven partly by factors relating to the arterial side and partly by factors relating to the venous side. Students are generally provided with a conceptually clear account of the arterial side, based on sound homeostatic mechanisms of negative feedback from a well-defined error signal, arterial pressure. However, on the venous side, teaching is often based on the notion of venous return, a concept that, as normally presented, is imprecise and intangible, a frequent cause of confusion that may lead to errors of clinical practice. Although one can trace these misconceptions back to some of Guyton's publications, Guyton himself was well aware of the complexities of venous resistance and capacitance but has not always been well served by subsequent misinterpretation. The fundamental problem with venous return that makes it inappropriate for controlling the circulation is that it lacks the essential requirement of being an error signal. We propose instead a new variable, venous excess, which represents the accumulation of any mismatch between the rate of blood entering the great veins and the rate of leaving, the cardiac output. As well as being directly observable without intervention (in a patient's jugular vein), it meets all of the requirements of an error signal: via the Starling mechanism it stimulates cardiac output, regulates venous compliance, and in the longer term is an important determinant of fluid intake and excretion, and these effects act to reduce the original perturbation. Based on this concept, we suggest a simple and secure basis for teaching the control of the circulation that avoids undue reliance on entities that are difficult to specify or measure and emphasizes the role of feedback and the similarities between the arterial and venous mechanisms.