While the chemical nature of reactive oxygen species (ROS) dictates that they are potentially harmful to cells, recent genetic evidence suggests that in planta purely physicochemical damage may be much more limited than previously thought. The most potentially deleterious effect of ROS under most conditions is that at high concentrations they trigger genetically programmed cell suicide events. Moreover, because plants use ROS as second messengers in signal transduction cascades in processes as diverse as mitosis, tropisms and cell death, their accumulation is crucial to plant development as well as defence. Direct ROS signal transduction will ensue only if ROS escape destruction by antioxidants or are otherwise consumed in a ROS cascade. Thus, the major low molecular weight antioxidants determine the specificity of the signal. They are also themselves signal-transducing molecules that can either signal independently or further transmit ROS signals. The moment has come to re-evaluate the concept of oxidative stress. In contrast to this pejorative or negative term, implying a state to be avoided, we propose that the syndrome would be more usefully described as ‘oxidative signalling’, that is, an important and critical function associated with the mechanisms by which plant cells sense the environment and make appropriate adjustments to gene expression, metabolism and physiology.