The exchange of nutrients, energy and carbon between soil organic matter, the soil environment, aquatic systems and the atmosphere is important for agricultural productivity, water quality and climate. Long-standing theory suggests that soil organic matter is composed of inherently stable and chemically unique compounds. Here we argue that the available evidence does not support the formation of large-molecular-size and persistent ‘humic substances’ in soils. Instead, soil organic matter is a continuum of progressively decomposing organic compounds. We discuss implications of this view of the nature of soil organic matter for aquatic health, soil carbon-climate interactions and land management.