The IIM are a heterogeneous group of systemic rheumatic diseases which share the common features of chronic muscle weakness and mononuclear cell infiltrates in muscle. A number of classification schemes have been proposed for them, but none takes into consideration the marked immunologic, clinical, and genetic heterogeneity of the various clinical groups. We compared the usefulness of myositis-specific autoantibodies (anti-aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases, anti-SRP, anti-Mi-2 and anti-MAS) to the standard clinical categories (polymyositis, dermatomyositis, overlap myositis, cancer-associated myositis, and inclusion body myositis) in predicting clinical signs and symptoms, HLA types, and prognosis in 212 adult IIM patients. Although patients with inclusion body myositis (n = 26) differed in having significantly more asymmetric and distal weakness, falling, and atrophy than other patients, there were few other significant differences among the other clinical groups. In contrast, autoantibody status defined distinct sets of patients and each patient had only 1 myositis-specific autoantibody. Patients with anti-amino-acyl-tRNA synthetase autoantibodies (n = 47), compared to those without these antibodies, had significantly more frequent arthritis, fever, interstitial lung disease, and "mechanic's hands"; HLA-DRw52; higher mean prednisone dose at survey, higher proportion of patients receiving cytotoxic drugs, and higher death rates. Those with anti-signal recognition particle antibodies (n = 7) had increased palpitations; myalgias; DR5, DRw52; severe, refractory disease; and higher death rates. Patients with anti-Mi-2 antibodies (n = 10) had increased "V-sign" and "shawl-sign" rashes, and cuticular overgrowth; DR7 and DRw53; and a good response to therapy. The 2 patients with anti-MAS antibodies were the only ones with alcoholic rhabdomyolysis preceding myositis; both had insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, and both had HLA-B60, -C3, -DR4, and -DRw53. These findings suggest that myositis-specific autoantibody status is a more useful guide than clinical group in assessing patients with myositis, and that specific associations of immunogenetics, immune responses, and clinical manifestations occur in IIM. Thus the myositis-specific autoantibodies aid in interpreting the diverse symptoms and signs of myositis patients and in predicting their clinical course and prognosis. We propose, therefore, that an adjunct classification of the IIM, based on the myositis-specific autoantibody status, be incorporated into future studies of their epidemiology, etiology, and therapy.