Despite progress in the supportive care available for critically ill patients, few advances have been made in the search for effective disease-modifying therapeutic options. The fact that many trials in critical care medicine have not identified a treatment benefit is probably due, in part, to the underlying heterogeneity of critical care syndromes. Numerous approaches have been proposed to divide populations of critically ill patients into more meaningful subgroups (subphenotypes), some of which might be more useful than others. Subclassification systems driven by clinical features and biomarkers have been proposed for acute respiratory distress syndrome, sepsis, acute kidney injury, and pancreatitis. Identifying the systems that are most useful and biologically meaningful could lead to a better understanding of the pathophysiology of critical care syndromes and the discovery of new treatment targets, and allow recruitment in future therapeutic trials to focus on predicted responders. This Review discusses proposed subphenotypes of critical illness syndromes and highlights the issues that will need to be addressed to translate subphenotypes into clinical practice.