The use of proton-proton nuclear Overhauser enhancement (NOE) distance information for identification of polypeptide secondary structures in non-crystalline proteins was investigated by stereochemical studies of standard secondary structures and by statistical analyses of the secondary structures in the crystal conformations of a group of globular proteins. Both regular helix and beta-sheet secondary structures were found to contain a dense network of short 1H-1H distances. The results obtained imply that the combined information on all these distances obtained from visual inspection of the two-dimensional NOE (NOESY) spectra is sufficient for determination of the helical and beta-sheet secondary structures in small globular proteins. Furthermore, cis peptide bonds can be identified from unique, short sequential proton-proton distances. Limitations of this empirical approach are that the exact start or end of a helix may be difficult to define when the adjoining residues form a tight turn, and that unambiguous identification of tight turns can usually be obtained only in the hairpins of antiparallel beta-structures. The short distances between protons in pentapeptide segments of the different secondary structures have been tabulated to provide a generally applicable guide for the analysis of NOESY spectra of proteins.