In order to explore the impact of a degraded semantic system on the structure of language production, we analysed transcripts from autobiographical memory interviews to identify naturally-occurring speech errors by eight patients with semantic dementia (SD) and eight age-matched normal speakers. Relative to controls, patients were significantly more likely to (a) substitute and omit open class words, (b) substitute (but not omit) closed class words, (c) substitute incorrect complex morphological forms and (d) produce semantically and/or syntactically anomalous sentences. Phonological errors were scarce in both groups. The study confirms previous evidence of SD patients' problems with open class content words which are replaced by higher frequency, less specific terms. It presents the first evidence that SD patients have problems with closed class items and make syntactic as well as semantic speech errors, although these grammatical abnormalities are mostly subtle rather than gross. The results can be explained by the semantic deficit which disrupts the representation of a pre-verbal message, lexical retrieval and the early stages of grammatical encoding.