Abstract Necrosis and apoptosis are two distinct modes of cell death which differ in morphology, mechanism and incidence. Membrane disruptants, respiratory poisons and hypoxia cause ATP depletion, metabolic collapse, cell swelling and rupture leading to inflammation. These are typical features of necrosis. Apoptosis plays a crucial role in embryogenesis and development and is also prevalent in tumours. It is characterised by cell shrinkage, chromatin condensation and systematic DNA cleavage. Apoptotic cells are rapidly engulfed by phagocytes, thus preventing inflammatory reaction to degradative cell contents. In vivo, apoptosis is almost impossible to quantify due to problems of heterogeneity and the short half-life of an apoptotic cell. In vitro, mechanistic studies are further complicated by a late phase of apoptosis where the cell membrane becomes permeable to vital dyes and which occurs in the absence of phagocytes. Here we describe a novel and rapid multiparameter flow cytometric assay which discriminates and quantifies viable, apoptotic and necrotic cells via measurement of forward and side light scatter (proportional to cell diameter and internal granularity, respectively) and the DNA-binding fluorophores Hoechst 33342 and propidium. It is anticipated that mechanistic studies of apoptosis in a variety of cell types will greatly benefit from this mode of analysis.