Printed word frequency can modulate retrieval effort in a task requiring associative semantic judgment. Event-related fMRI, while avoiding stimulus order predictability, is in theory statistically less powerful than block designs. We compared one event-related and two block designs that evaluated the same semantic judgment task and found that similar brain regions demonstrated the word frequency effect. Although the responses were lower in amplitude, event-related fMRI was able to detect the word frequency effect to a comparable degree compared to the block designs. The detection of a frequency effect with the event-related design also suggests that stimulus–order predictability may not be as serious a concern in block designs as might be supposed. Hum. Brain Mapping 18:186–193, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.