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Xylan is a barrier to enzymatic hydrolysis of plant cell walls. It is well accepted that the xylan layer needs to be removed to efficiently hydrolyze cellulose; consequently, pretreatment conditions are (in part) optimized for maximal xylan depolymerization or displacement. Xylan consists of a long chain of β-1,4-linked xylose units substituted with arabinose (typically α-1,3-linked in grasses) and glucuronic acid (α-1,2-linked). Xylan has been proposed to have a structural function in plants and therefore may play a role in determining biomass reactivity to pretreatment. It has been proposed that substitutions along xylan chains are not random and, based upon studies of pericarp xylan, are organized in domains that have specific structural functions. Analysis of intact xylan is problematic because of its chain length (> degree of polymerization (d.p.) 100) and heterogeneous side groups. Traditionally, enzymatic end-point products have been characterized due to the limited products generated. Analysis of resultant arabino-xylo-oligosaccharides by mass spectrometry is complicated by the isobaric pentose sugars that primarily compose xylan. In this report, the variation in pentose ring structures was exploited for selective oxidation of the arabinofuranose primary alcohols followed by acid depolymerization to provide oligosaccharides with modified arabinose branches intact. Switchgrass samples were analyzed by hydrophilic interaction chromatography (HILIC)-liquid chromatography (LC)-mass spectrometry/mass spectrometry (MSMS) and off-line nanospray MS to demonstrate the utility of this chemistry for determination of primary hydroxyl groups on oligosaccharide structures, with potential applications for determining the sequence of arabino-xylo-oligosaccharides present in plant cell wall material. Published in 2011 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.