Over the past decade there has been an explosion of interest and activity in the nursing profession directed toward the development of a theory base for nursing education and practice. Although we support the overall thrust of nursing theory development, we have concerns about its utility, scope and stated purposes. We are especially sensitive to the plight of the practising nurse who might attempt to use the current nursing theories to guide and explain choices made in daily practice. In this paper we examine current use of the word ‘theory’ and describe problems inherent in nursing's efforts to apply educationally derived conceptual frameworks to nursing practice. We identify a need for the development and use of many theories for nursing and argue that there is a logical need for a ‘meta-model’ which will guide the use of multiple theories in practice. A model is presented which allows the practising nurse to examine the various theories in terms of their applicability to a given client situation. We believe the model is also useful to nurse educators and researchers who may be attempting to use nursing theories for educational purposes or develop nursing's knowledge base through empirical work.