Primary progressive aphasia (PPA) is a focal dementia characterized by an isolated and gradual dissolution of language function. The disease starts with word-finding disturbances (anomia) and frequently proceeds to impair the grammatical structure (syntax) and comprehension (semantics) of language. The speech output in PPA can be fluent or nonfluent. Memory, visual processing, and personality remain relatively well-preserved until the advanced stages and help to distiguish PPA from frontal lobe dementia and the typical forms of Alzheimer's disease. The term "semantic dementia" was originally introduced to designate a different group of patients with a combination of verbal and visual processing deficits. In practice, however, this diagnosis is also being used in a variant sense to denote a subtype of PPA with fluent speech and impaired comprehension, even in the absence of visual processing deficits. Insofar as the diagnosis of semantic dementia can have these two different meanings, it is important to specify whether it is being used in the original sense or to denote a subtype of PPA. Structural and physiological neuroimaging confirms the selective predilection of PPA for the left hemisphere, especially for its language-related cortices. A few patients with PPA display the neuropathological markers of Alzheimer's disease, but in an unusual distribution. The majority of the autopsies in PPA have shown either Pick's disease or lobar atrophy without distinctive histopathology. The suggestion has been made that PPA and frontal lobe dementia constitute phenotypical variations of a unitary disease process within the "Pick-lobar atrophy" spectrum. Recent advances in chromosome 17-linked dementias justify a rigorous search for tau polymorphisms and tauopathy in sporadic PPA. An informed approach to this syndrome will increase the effectiveness with which clinicians can address the unique challenges associated with the diagnosis and care of PPA.