Background: Nonsense-mediated decay is a mechanism that degrades mRNAs with a premature termination codon. That some exons have premature termination codons at fixation is paradoxical: why make a transcript if it is only to be destroyed? One model supposes that splicing is inherently noisy and spurious transcripts are common. The evolution of a premature termination codon in a regularly made unwanted transcript can be a means to prevent costly translation. Alternatively, nonsense-mediated decay can be regulated under certain conditions so the presence of a premature termination codon can be a means to up-regulate transcripts needed when nonsense-mediated decay is suppressed. Results: To resolve this issue we examined the properties of putative nonsense-mediated decay targets in humans and mice. We started with a well-annotated set of protein coding genes and found that 2 to 4% of genes are probably subject to nonsense-mediated decay, and that the premature termination codon reflects neither rare mutations nor sequencing artefacts. Several lines of evidence suggested that the noisy splicing model has considerable relevance: 1) exons that are uniquely found in nonsense-mediated decay transcripts (nonsense-mediated decay-specific exons) tend to be newly created; 2) have low-inclusion level; 3) tend not to be a multiple of three long; 4) belong to genes with multiple splice isoforms more often than expected; and 5) these genes are not obviously enriched for any functional class nor conserved as nonsense-mediated decay candidates in other species. However, nonsense-mediated decay-specific exons for which distant orthologous exons can be found tend to have been under purifying selection, consistent with the regulation model. Conclusion: We conclude that for recently evolved exons the noisy splicing model is the better explanation of their properties, while for ancient exons the nonsense-mediated decay regulated gene expression is a viable explanation.