Plastic cracking of cement mortar and concrete is primarily attributable to desiccation by evaporation from unprotected surfaces. This causes high suctions (negative pressures) to develop in the pore water adjacent to these surfaces. Dissolved salts in the pore water can also contribute significantly to suctions. Quantitative expressions are available for all of the components of the total suction. The development of suctions over time is illustrated by the results of desiccation tests conducted on cement mortars, supplemented by data from the literature. It is shown that ambient conditions conducive to plastic cracking can arise almost anywhere, but that the extremely high suctions that develop in mature cement mortar and concrete do not imply that compression failures should occur A high value of fracture energy is derived from data from the desiccation tests that implies that plastic cracking is characterized by a significant zone of plastic straining or microcracking.