Many different theories have been advanced concerning the biological roles of the oligosaccharide units of individual classes of glycoconjugates. Analysis of the evidence indicates that while all of these theories are correct, exceptions to each can also be found. The biological roles of oligosaccharides appear to span the spectrum from those that are trivial, to those that are crucial for the development, growth, function or survival of an organism. Some general principles emerge. First, it is difficult to predict a priori the functions a given oligosaccharide on a given glycoconjugate might be mediating, or their relative importance to the organism. Second, the same oligosaccharide sequence may mediate different functions at different locations within the same organism, or at different times in its ontogeny or life cycle. Third, the more specific and crucial biological roles of oligosaccharides are often mediated by unusual oligosaccharide sequences, unusual presentations of common terminal sequences, or by further modifications of the sugars themselves. However, such oligosaccharide sequences are also more likely to be targets for recognition by pathogenic toxins and microorganisms. As such, they are subject to more intra- and inter-species variation because of ongoing host—pathogen interactions during evolution. In the final analysis, the only common features of the varied functions of oligosaccharides are that they either mediate ‘specific recognition’ events or that they provide ‘modulation’ of biological processes. In so doing, they generate much of the functional diversity required for the development and differentiation of complex organisms, and for their interactions with other organisms in the environment.