Patients with semantic dementia show a specific pattern of impairment on both verbal and non-verbal "pre-semantic" tasks, e.g., reading aloud, past tense generation, spelling to dictation, lexical decision, object decision, colour decision and delayed picture copying. All seven tasks are characterised by poorer performance for items that are atypical of the domain and "regularisation errors" (irregular/atypical items are produced as if they were domain-typical). The emergence of this pattern across diverse tasks in the same patients indicates that semantic memory plays a key role in all of these types of "pre-semantic" processing. However, this claim remains controversial because semantically impaired patients sometimes fail to show an influence of regularity. This study demonstrates that (a) the location of brain damage and (b) the underlying nature of the semantic deficit affect the likelihood of observing the expected relationship between poor comprehension and regularity effects. We compared the effect of multimodal semantic impairment in the context of semantic dementia and stroke aphasia on the seven "pre-semantic" tasks listed above. In all of these tasks, the semantic aphasia patients were less sensitive to typicality than the semantic dementia patients, even though the two groups obtained comparable scores on semantic tests. The semantic aphasia group also made fewer regularisation errors and many more unrelated and perseverative responses. We propose that these group differences reflect the different locus for the semantic impairment in the two conditions: patients with semantic dementia have degraded semantic representations, whereas semantic aphasia patients show deregulated semantic cognition with concomitant executive deficits. These findings suggest a reinterpretation of single-case studies of comprehension-impaired aphasic patients who fail to show the expected effect of regularity on "pre-semantic" tasks. Consequently, such cases do not demonstrate the independence of these tasks from semantic memory. © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.