To assess the value of measuring compliance in the adult respiratory distress syndrome, sequential pressure-volume curves were obtained in 19 patients with this syndrome. Analysis of the pressure-volume curves allowed separation of the patients into the following four groups: (1) group 1 (n = 6), normal compliance measured during deflation, little hysteresis, and no inflection in the ascending limb of the pressure-volume tracing; (2) group 2 (n = 8), normal compliance during deflation, increased hysteresis, and presence of an inflection; (3) group 3 (n = 10), decreased compliance during deflation, marked hysteresis, and presence of an inflection; and (4) group 4 (n = 10), reduced compliance during deflation, no increased hysteresis, and no inflection. These patterns were correlated with the stage of the adult respiratory distress syndrome and to the pattern of the chest x-ray film. Group 2 corresponds to the initial stage of the syndrome and to pure alveolar opacities on the chest x-ray film. Group 3 is seen later in the course of the syndrome and corresponds to mixed alveolar and interstitial opacities. Group 4 corresponds to patients with end-stage adult respiratory distress syndrome (two weeks) and a predominant interstitial pattern on the chest x-ray film. Group 1 corresponds to a nearly normal chest x-ray film and to recovery.