Dynamic stresses generated by earthquakes can trigger landslides. Current methods of landslide analysis such as pseudo-static analysis and Newmark's method focus on the effects of earthquake accelerations on the landslide mass to characterize dynamic landslide behaviour. One limitation of these methods is their use Mohr-Coulomb failure criteria, which only accounts for shear failure, but the role of tensile failure is not accounted for. We develop a limit-equilibrium model to investigate the dynamic stresses generated by a given ground motion due to a plane wave and use this model to assess the role of shear and tensile failure in the initiation of slope instability. We do so by incorporating a modified Griffith failure envelope, which combines shear and tensile failure into a single criterion. Tests of dynamic stresses in both homogeneous and layered slopes demonstrate that two modes of failure exist, tensile failure in the uppermost meters of a slope and shear failure at greater depth. Further, we derive equations that express the dynamic stress in the near-surface in the acceleration measured at the surface. These equations are used to approximately define the depth range for each mechanism of failure. The depths at which these failure mechanisms occur suggest that shear and tensile failure might collaborate in generating slope failure. ?? 2007 The Authors Journal compilation ?? 2007 RAS.