The diagnosis of asthma depends on what we mean by the word. Its definition continues to be controversial because there is no single genetic or environmental cause. Addressed from a descriptive point of view, the disease components include airway inflammation, symptoms, variable airflow limitation and chronic airflow limitation. The essentialist definition conveys the message that asthma is a separate disease entity, fails to identify a primary defining characteristic which separates it from other diseases and is long winded. These disadvantages are overcome by the nominalist definition of asthma in which the word ‘asthma’refers to an abnormality of airway function, specifically to wide variations in airflow limitation over short periods of time. In patients with asthma the other components of airway disease need to be considered. These have separate nominalist definitions and especially include different types of bronchitis for airway inflammation and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for chronic airflow limitation. What is present will vary between and within patients. The accurate diagnosis of asthma and of other components of disease all require objective measurements. Currently spirometry and airway responsiveness should be available to the general practitioner, who sees milder disease, and additional quantitative sputum cell counts in specialist practice, where moderate to severe disease is more prevalent. Such measurements characterize the patient, identify heterogeneity and allow treatment to be personalized.