The clinical presentation of patients with semantic dementia is dominated by anomia and poor verbal comprehension. Although a number of researchers have argued that these patients have impaired comprehension of non-verbal as well as verbal stimuli, the evidence for semantic deterioration is mainly derived from tasks that include some form of verbal input or output. Few studies have investigated semantic impairment using entirely non-verbal assessments and the few exceptions have been based on results from single cases (: Breedin SD, Saffran EM, Coslett HB. Reversal of the concreteness effect in a patient with semantic dementia. Cognitive Neuropsychology 1994;11:617-660, : Graham KS, Becker JT, Patterson K, Hodges JR. Lost for words: a case of primary progressive aphasia? In: Parkin A, editor. Case studies in the neuropsychology of memory, East Sussex: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997. pp. 83-110, : Lambon Ralph MA, Howard D. Gogi aphasia or semantic dementia? Simulating and assessing poor verbal comprehension in a case of progressive fluent aphasia. Cognitive Neuropsychology, (in-press).This study employed sound recognition and semantic association tasks to investigate the nature of the verbal and non-verbal comprehension deficit in 10 patients with semantic dementia. The patients were impaired on both verbal and non-verbal conditions of the assessments, and their accuracy on these tasks was directly related to their scores on a range of other tests requiring access to semantic memory. Further analyses revealed that performance was graded by concept and sound familiarity and, in addition, identified significant item consistency across the different conditions of the tasks. These results support the notion that the patients' deficits across all modalities were due to degradation within a single, central network of conceptual knowledge. There were also reliable differences between conditions. The sound-picture matching task proved to be more sensitive to semantic impairment than the word-picture matching equivalent, and the patients performed significantly better on the picture than word version of a semantic association test. We propose that these differences arise directly from the nature of the mapping between input modality and semantic memory. Words and sounds have an arbitrary relationship with meaning while pictures benefit from a degree of systematicity with conceptual knowledge about the object. Copyright (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd.