Qualitative aspects of verbal fluency may be more useful in discerning the precise cause of any quantitative deficits in phonetic or category fluency, especially in the case of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a possible intermediate stage between normal performance and Alzheimer's disease (AD). The aim of this study was to use both quantitative and qualitative (switches and clusters) methods to compare the phonetic and category verbal fluency performance of elderly adults with no cognitive impairment (n = 51), significant memory impairment (n = 16), and AD (n = 16). As expected, the AD group displayed impairments in all quantitative and qualitative measures of the two fluency tasks relative to their age- and education-matched peers. By contrast, the amnestic MCI group produced fewer animal names on the semantic fluency task than controls and showed normal performance on the phonetic fluency task. The MCI group's inferior category fluency performance was associated with a deficit in their category-switching rate rather than word cluster size. Overall, the results indicate that a semantic measure such as category fluency when used in conjunction with a test of episodic memory may increase the sensitivity for detecting preclinical AD. Future research using external cues and other measures of set shifting capacity may assist in clarifying the origin of the amnestic MCI-specific category-switching deficiency.