Silicon nitride ceramics are finding uses in numerous engineering applications because of their tendency to form whisker-like microstructures that can overcome the inherent brittle nature of ceramics. Studies now establish the underlying microscopic and atomic-scale principles for engineering a tough, strong ceramic. The theoretical predictions are confirmed by macroscopic observations and atomic level characterization of preferential segregation at the interfaces between the grains and the continuous nanometer thick amorphous intergranular film (IGF). Two interrelated factors must be controlled for this to occur including the generation of the elongated reinforcing grains during sintering and debonding of the interfaces between the reinforcing grains and the matrix. The reinforcing grains can be controlled by (1) seeding with beta particles and (2) the chemistry of the additives, which also can influence the interfacial debonding conditions. In addition to modifying the morphology of the reinforcing grains, it now appears that the combination of preferential segregation and strong bonding of the additives (e.g., the rare earths, RE) to the prism planes can also result in sufficiently weakens the bond of the interface with the IGF to promote debonding. Thus atomic-scale engineering may allow us to gain further enhancements in fracture properties. This new knowledge will enable true atomic-level engineering to be joined with microscale tailoring to develop the advanced ceramics that will be required for more efficient engines, new electronic device architectures and composites.