Clinical function and health-related quality of life (HRQoL) are both important outcome parameters following surgery for oral and oropharyngeal cancer. The aim of this project was to explore the relationship between an 11-point clinical examination and HRQoL. Of 132 consecutive patients undergoing surgery for previously untreated disease between January 1995 and June 1997, 130 were recruited into the study. The University of Washington Quality of Life Questionnaire (UW-QoL) was completed by each patient on the day before operation and 6 and 12 months later. On each occasion the first author made an 11-point clinical examination. The main predictors of cumulative UW-QoL scores were tumour size, clinical functional score and type of operation. The trend was for a fall from preoperative levels at 6 months and then for a slight improvement at 1 year. The differential in respect of baseline function was present at all three time points in each patient group. This suggests that functional deficits at presentation persist following treatment.