The underlying basis of the main chain directed (MCD) resonance assignment strategy for the analysis of 1H NMR spectra of proteins is reexamined. The criteria used in the construction of the patterns used in the MCD method have been extended to increase the robustness of the approach to the presence of variable protein secondary structure and significant spectral degeneracy. These criteria have led to the development of several dozen patterns exclusively involving the short distance relationships between main chain amide NH-C alpha-H-C beta H (NAB) J-coupled subspin systems of the amino acid residues. The MCD patterns have been examined for fidelity and frequency of occurrence in a database composed of the high resolution crystal structures of 39 proteins. The analysis has identified several extremely robust patterns, suitable for initiating a hierarchical construction of units of secondary structure based upon a systematic analysis of two-dimensional nuclear Overhauser effect spectra. A formal procedure, suitable for the computer assisted application of the MCD strategy, is developed. This procedure, termed MCDPAT, has been applied to the analysis of the crystal structures of human ubiquitin, T4 lysozyme, and ribonuclease A. It has been found that the MCDPAT procedure is conservative producing no significant errors and is globally successful in correctly identifying the appropriate units of secondary structure contained in these three proteins.