The pre-T-cell receptor (pre-TCR) has a crucial role in the normal development of alphabeta T cells. Different views have emerged concerning the structure and function of the pre-TCR. This molecular complex can be viewed as a variant of the alphabeta-TCR in which the pre-TCR alpha-chain that is covalently associated with the TCR beta-chain is a 'surrogate' TCR alpha-chain. Alternatively, the unique structure of the pre-TCR might be associated with a unique function, owing to evolutionary selection of a pre-TCR alpha-chain that has different capabilities from the TCR alpha-chain. As described here, I consider that experimental evidence favours the latter view.