The diagnosis of early rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has inherent difficulties. It requires assessment, not only of the current clinical picture, but of the potential for change. As the pathognomonic feature of RA, is persistence it is not surprising that the American College of Rheumatologists criteria perform better in predicting persistence than severity. An adequate histological/imaging method of diagnosing RA is awaited. In the interim, a pragmatic approach to defining disease has been suggested, which takes a homogeneous group of patients with persistent inflammatory small joint synovitis and secondarily stages them for severity. This proposal is currently being assessed for clinical usefulness.