Recent insights show that increased motivation can benefit executive control, but this effect has not been explored in relation to semantic cognition. Patients with deficits of controlled semantic retrieval in the context of semantic aphasia (SA) after stroke may benefit from this approach since ‘semantic control’ is considered an executive process. Deficits in this domain are partially distinct from the domain-general deficits of cognitive control. We assessed the effect of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in healthy controls and SA patients. Experiment 1 manipulated extrinsic reward using high or low levels of points for correct responses during a semantic association task. Experiment 2 manipulated the intrinsic value of items using self-reference, allocating pictures of items to the participant (‘self’) or researcher (‘other’) in a shopping game before participants retrieved their semantic associations. These experiments revealed that patients, but not controls, showed better performance when given an extrinsic reward, consistent with the view that increased external motivation may help ameliorate patients’ semantic control deficits. However, while self-reference was associated with better episodic memory, there was no effect on semantic retrieval. We conclude that semantic control deficits can be reduced when extrinsic rewards are anticipated; this enhanced motivational state is expected to support proactive control, for example, through the maintenance of task representations. It may be possible to harness this modulatory impact of reward to combat the control demands of semantic tasks in SA patients.