The protonation of a transition-metal hydride is a formally simple process between a proton donor and a proton acceptor with several potential basic centres. The detailed mechanism is however quite subtle, with multistep reactions and involvement of different intermediates. The process is furthermore very sensitive to the nature of both the proton donor and the transition-metal complex, as well as to the solvent and to the presence and identity of eventual counteranions. This tutorial review summarizes the recent progress in the understanding of the reaction, obtained through the joint application of a number of computational and experimental techniques. © The Royal Society of Chemistry 2009.