The usefulness of diaphragm electromyography recorded from an oesophageal electrode depends on a reliable signal which is free of artefact. The diaphragm EMG (electromyogram) recorded from chest wall surface electrodes may be unreliable because of signal contamination from muscle activity other than the diaphragm. Initially, the oesophageal electrode catheter for human studies had only one electrode pair, which could be difficult to position accurately and was influenced by a change in lung volume. Recently, a multipair oesophageal electrode has been developed which allows a high-quality EMG to be recorded. In the present review, the progress of oesophageal electrode design is outlined. The effects of signal contamination, electrode movement and particularly the effect of change in lung volume on the diaphragm EMG are discussed. The diaphragm EMG, recorded from a multipair oesophageal electrode, is useful to assess neural respiratory drive and diaphragm function in different groups of patients with respiratory disease, including patients with neuromuscular disease and sleep-disordered breathing, and those in the intensive care unit. When combined with cervical and cranial magnetic stimulation, an oesophageal electrode can be used to partition the central respiratory response time and phrenic nerve conduction time.