Speech and language comprehension and production were assessed at the age of 5 years in a cohort of children born preterm at < or = 32 weeks' gestational age (N=55) in comparison with children born at term and of similar age, sex, and social backgrounds. Data both including and excluding major neurological disabilities are presented. Mean performance for the entire group of preterm children was significantly lower than for the controls on most of the measures including the composite IQ scores. When the nine children who had major neurological disabilities were excluded from the preterm group, statistically significant differences were found on four of the total 12 speech and language measures. Intellectually normal preterm children without major neurological disability were slower than the controls on rapid word retrieval. In addition, difficulties in comprehending relative concepts were typical for the preterm children. The results suggest 'subtle dysnomia', which is indicative of later reading problems. On global verbal measures and on the basic speech and language aspects the study groups did not differ. Specific language impairment, defined as a discrepancy of > 1SD between Performance IQ and Verbal IQ scores, showed a tendency to be more common in the control group. Within both the study groups, the boys showed a tendency for a greater discrepancy between their Performance and Verbal IQ scores.