Cervical smears (n = 150) from five departments showing high-grade dyskaryosis were examined by three cytologists. All the smears came from patients with biopsy-proven CIN III. One hundred had been correctly reported (true positives) but 50 had originally been reported as negative and had been found to be positive only on review (false negatives). There were significant differences between the two sets in the characteristics of the dyskaryotic cell population. The false-negative smears tended to have fewer than 200 dyskaryotic cells. The nuclei of the dyskaryotic cells tended to have fine rather than coarse nuclear chromatin. A smear with fewer than 50 dyskaryotic cells is 26 times more likely to be reported as negative than one with more than 200 dyskaryotic cells. The results suggest that there is a type of severely dyskaryotic smear that is inherently likely to be missed on routine screening.