A questionnaire to establish the presence of 15 symptoms thought to be typical of the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) was given to 109 unselected patients referred to gastroenterology or surgery clinics with abdominal pain or a change in bowel habit or both. Review of case records 17--26 months later established a definite diagnosis of IBS in 32 patients and of organic disease in 33. Four symptoms were significantly more common among patients with IBS--namely, distension, relief of pain with bowel movement, and looser and more frequent bowel movements with the onset of pain. Mucus and a sensation of incomplete evacuation were also common in these patients. The more of these symptoms that were present the more likely was it that the patient's pain or altered bowel habit, or both, was due to IBS. We conclude that a careful history can increase diagnostic confidence and reduce the amount of investigation in many patients with chronic abdominal pain.