Neuropsychological studies of verbal short-term memory have often focused on two signature effects–phonological similarity and word length–the absence of which has been taken to indicate problems in phonological storage and rehearsal respectively. In the present study we present a possible alternative reading of such data, namely that the absence of these effects can follow as a consequence of individuals’ poor levels of recall. Data from a large normative sample of 251 adult participants were re-analyzed under the assumption that the size of phonological similarity and word length effects are proportional to individuals’ overall level of recall. For both manipulations, when proportionalized effects were plotted against memoryspan, the same function fit the data in both auditory and visual presentation conditions. Furthermore, two additional sets of single case data were broadly comparable to those that would be expected for individuals’ level of verbal short-term memory performance albeit with some variation across tasks. These findings indicate that the absolute magnitude of phonological similarity and word length effects depends on overall levels of recall, and that these effects are necessarily eliminated at low levels of verbal short-term memory performance. This has implications for how one interprets any variation in the size of these effects, and raises serious questions about the causal direction of any relationship between impaired verbal short-term memory and the absence of phonological similarity or word length effects.