When the growth of the gram-negative bacterial cell wall is considered in relation to the synthesis of the other components of the cell, a new understanding of the pattern of wall synthesis emerges. Rather than a switch in synthesis between the side wall and pole, there is a partitioning of synthesis such that the volume of the cell increases exponentially and thus perfectly encloses the exponentially increasing cytoplasm. This allows the density of the cell to remain constant during the division cycle. This model is explored at both the cellular and molecular levels to give a unified description of wall synthesis which has the following components: (i) there is no demonstrable turnover of peptidoglycan during cell growth, (ii) the side wall grows by diffuse intercalation, (iii) pole synthesis starts by some mechanism and is preferentially synthesized compared with side wall, and (iv) the combined side wall and pole syntheses enclose the newly synthesized cytoplasm at a constant cell density. The central role of the surface stress model in wall growth is distinguished from, and preferred to, models that propose cell-cycle-specific signals as triggers of changes in the rate of wall synthesis. The actual rate of wall synthesis during the division cycle is neither exponential nor linear, but is close to exponential when compared with protein synthesis during the division cycle.