Hybridization based assays and capture systems depend on the specificity of hybridization between a probe and its intended target. A common guideline in the construction of DNA microarrays, for instance, is that avoiding complementary stretches of more than 15 nucleic acids in a 50 or 60-mer probe will eliminate sequence specific cross-hybridization reactions. Here we present a study of the behavior of partially matched oligonucleotide pairs with complementary stretches starting well below this threshold complementarity length - in silico, in solution, and at the microarray surface. The modeled behavior of pairs of oligonucleotide probes and their targets suggests that even a complementary stretch of sequence 12 nt in length would give rise to specific cross-hybridization. We designed a set of binding partners to a 50-mer oligonucleotide containing complementary stretches from 6 nt to 21 nt in length. Solution melting experiments demonstrate that stable partial duplexes can form when only 12 bp of complementary sequence are present; surface hybridization experiments confirm that a signal close in magnitude to full-strength signal can be obtained from hybridization of a 12 bp duplex within a 50mer oligonucleotide. Microarray and other molecular capture strategies that rely on a 15 nt lower complementarity bound for eliminating specific cross-hybridization may not be sufficiently conservative.