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American Sign Language:  Grammar:

Grammar links:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Also see:
Compounds
Inflection
Noun Verb Pairs
 

A "grammar" is a set of rules for using a language.  These rules guide users in the correct speaking or signing of a language.

The grammar of a language is decided by the group of people who use the language. New grammar rules come into existence when enough members of the group have spoken (signed)  their language a particular way often enough and long enough that it would seem odd to speak the language in some other way.

American Sign Language is tied to the Deaf Community.   We use our language in a certain way.  That "certain way" is what constitutes ASL grammar.

American Sign Language has its own grammar system, separate from that of English.  What this means is ASL grammar has its own rules for phonology, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics.

ASL Word Order

ASL follows several different "word orders" depending on what is needed. Which word order you choose depends on your audience's familiarity with the topic and what you are trying to do: explain, remind, confirm, negate, cause to consider. 

Normal conversations tend to follow Subject-Verb-Object or Subject-Verb order.  Some people might confuse this as to mean English word order.   While the word order in ASL and English can be similar, ASL does not use BE verbs (am, is, are, was, were) or anything to indicate the state of “being.”  Nor does it use articles (a, an, the).  These are some distinctions to keep in mind.

Additionally, we also use Time-Subject-Verb-Object or Time-Subject-Verb word order.  That is, when discussing past and future events we tend to establish a time-frame before the rest of the sentence.  Often ASL signers will use the WEEK-PAST I WASH MY CAR sentence format. 

However, many ASL signers also use the MY CAR? WEEK-PAST I WASH-[large)object] format.

To understand why, you’ll also need to Topic-Comment sentence structures and topicalization. 
 

What is Your Topic?

A topic is what you are talking about. You can use either a subject or object as the "topic" in a sentence.

 

A.    If you use the subject as your topic, then you are using an active voice.

BOY THROW BALL.                   The boy threw the ball.

 

B.     If you use the object as your topic, then you are using a passive voice.

BALL, BOY THROW.                  The ball was thrown by the boy.

Note that the active voice is in Subject-Verb-Object word order:   BOY THROW BALL.  The passive voice is in Object, Subject-Verb word order:  BALL BOY THROW. 
 

What is Topic-Comment Format?

Both of the aforementioned sentences are in Topic-Comment format.  As we’ve already established, the topic is what you are talking about and the comment makes observations about that topic.  Topic is for the first item mentioned in a sentence (whether it is the subject or object) and the comment is the latter, and it makes a comment about the topic.  So let’s take a look at those sentences again:
 

A.    Active Voice, using the subject as your topic.

BOY THROW BALL.                   Topic: BOY  Comment:  THROW BALL

What is the topic?  Boy What is the comment saying about the boy?  He threw the ball.

 

B.     Passive Voice, using the object as your topic.

BALL, BOY THROW.                  Topic: BALL Comment:  BOY THROW

What is the topic?  Ball What is the comment saying about the ball?  It was thrown by the boy.

So, as you can see, the topic can be either a subject or an object.  Now that we’ve established the topic can be a "BOY" or it can be the "BALL" he is throwing, and it can either be the subject or object of the sentence. 
 

A.    The BOY can be:

·        The subject of the sentence:  BOY THROW BALL.

·        The object of the sentence: BALL, HIT BOY.

 

B.     The BALL can be:

·        The subject of the sentence:  BALL, HIT BOY.

·        The object of the sentence: BOY THROW BALL.


In each of these examples, the comment is either THROW BALL" or HIT BOY.

A Topic-Comment sentence structure can use either a Subject-Verb-Object or an Object-Subject-Verb word order.  A lot of students tend to find the Subject-Verb-Object easier to use because this closely resembles the English word order.  It is familiar and perfectly acceptable in ASL.
 

Object, Subject Verb Word Order

But, what about the Object, Subject Verb word order?  I bet you are thinking that you’ll never use that word order.  You probably feel it’s awkward and cumbersome and that people just don’t communicate like that in real life. 

Imagine a man and a woman sitting next to each other in a bar.  The man decides that the woman is really cool and he'd like to ask her on a date. But first he leans over and asks, "You married?"

To his relief she replies, "No, I'm not."

She then leans toward him and asks, "Are you married?"

To her relief he replies, "No."

They start dating, get married, and have a wonderful life. End of story.

Did you see what happened there? Let's take a look at those English sentences again.  He didn't use the word "are" in his sentence, but she did:

He leans over and asks, "You married?"

…..

She then leans toward him and asks, "Are you married?"

He didn't use the words "I'm not" in his sentence but she did:

To his relief she replies, "No, I'm not."

……

To her relief he replies, "No."

She used “are” in “Are you married?” so that she could emphasize the word “you.”  Why did she do that?  It is likely she wanted to make it clear that she expected equal exchange of information.,

The fact is, like English, there are a variety of "right ways" to use ASL. You can use more or fewer words and rearrange them depending on the context of your sentence and what you want to emphasize.  To ask the equivalent of “Are you married?” you can sign in any of the formats:
 

YOU MARRIED?

MARRIED YOU?

YOU MARRIED YOU?

Topicalization

Now that we have got the word ordering out of the way, let’s talk more about the Object, Subject Verb Order. As a general rule, when we use this particular word order, we tend to use topicalization.  What is that?

 Well, topicalization is not the same thing as Topic-Comment.  Topic-Comment is stating a topic and then making a comment about that topic.  So let’s talk about what it is.

 

Topicalization is the process of using a certain set of behaviors and/or expressions to introduce the object of your sentence and turn it into your topic.  So if I signed BALL, BOY THROW, I’d raise my eyebrows when I sign the word BALL, and then relax my eyebrows as I sign the comment BOY THROW. If he threw it far, I’d frown and tilt my head back. The comment of your sentence your facial expression should match the intent of the comment:  negation, affirmation, declaration, et cetera.

 

At this point in the discussion you might be wondering: "When should I use passive voice instead of active voice?” (BALL, BOY THROW instead of BOY THROW BALL).

 

Another way to ask that same question is, "When should you use topicalization?"

 

Yet, another way to ask that same question, "When should you put the object at the front of the sentence while raising your eyebrows?"

 

There are several situations when you should topicalize. A few examples applying to ASL are:

 

A.       When the subject is unknown: MY WALLET? GONE!

I don't know why it is missing, if it was stolen, or who stole it.

To sign this with active voice I would sign something to the effect of, "SOMEONE STOLE MY WALLET" – which takes longer.

 

B.       Irrelevancy: MY CAR? SOLD!

It doesn't really matter who sold it. Just that the process is over. So why should I waste time explaining who sold it?

 

C.       Efficiency and/or Expediency: MY CELL PHONE? FOUND!

If I explained to you last week that was at the county fair and lost my text messaging device I don't want to have to explain it to you again if you still remember what had happened. So I sign "CELLPHONE" with my eyebrows up and if you nod in recognition, I go ahead and tell you that it was found.

 

D.       Clarification:  MY SISTER SON? HE GRADUATE.
Perhaps you know that I have more than one nephew.  If I signed “MY NEPHEW GRADUATE” you still don’t know for sure “who” graduated.  It is more effective to clarify that it was my sister’s son that graduated and not my brother’s son. 

 Some instructors overemphasize topicalization or give the impression that the majority of ASL communication is topicalized. The fact is many ASL sentences are simply “Subject, Verb-(transitive), Object” example: "INDEX BOY THROW BALL" (“The boy threw the ball.”) or are Subject-Verb (intransitive), for example: "HE LEFT."

So, let’s review that again.  Topicalization means that you are using the object of the sentence as the topic and introducing it using a yes/no question expression (raised eye brows and head slightly tilted forward) followed by a comment.

A Topic-Comment sentence can either topicalized or non-topicalized:
 

A.    Topicalized

1.     YOUR MOM? I MET YESTERDAY! 

Your mom is the topic and the sentence is in Object-Verb-Subject word order

2.     MY CAT? DIED!

My cat is the topic and the sentence is in Object-Verb word order. The word, MY, is an attributive adjective.

 

B.     Non-topicalized

1.      I MET YOUR MOM YESTERDAY!

I am the topic and the sentence is in Subject-Verb-Object word order.

2.     MY CAT DIED!

My cat is the topic and the sentence is in Subject-Verb word order. The word, MY, is an attributive adjective.

 

If the following question were to appear on an exam, which answer should you select?

 

Which of the following sentences uses topicalization?

A.    Subject-Verb-Object:  BOY THROW BALL.          

B.     Subject-Verb: BOY RUN.                                  

C.    Subject-Noun:  HE HOME.                                

D.    Subject-Adjective:  HE TALL .                                     

E.     Object, Subject-Verb:  MONEY?  she-GIVE-me.

 

The right answer is:  MONEY?  she-GIVE-me.

Please note, you don’t have to use topicalization.  Topicalization is not the norm in extended Deaf conversations and is reserved for specific purposes such like emphasis, expediency, clarification, or efficiency.

 




The term "grammar" is typically used to refer to "the proper use of language."  More specifically "a grammar" is a set of rules for using a language.  These rules guide users in the correct speaking or signing of a language.  

Who decides what is correct and incorrect grammar?  

The grammar (set of rules for proper use) of a language is developed by the group of people who use the language. New grammar rules come into existence when enough members of the group have spoken (signed)  their language a particular way often enough and long enough that it would seem odd to speak the language in some other way.

If you don't want to seem odd to others in your group, you've got to speak (sign) a language according to the rules which have been developed by the community which uses the language.

American Sign Language is tied to the Deaf Community.   We use our language in a certain way.  That "certain way" is what constitutes ASL grammar.

American Sign Language has its own grammar system, separate from that of English.

What this means is ASL grammar has its own rules for phonology, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics.

In general, ASL sentences follow a "TOPIC" "COMMENT" arrangement. Another name for  a "comment" is the term "predicate."  A predicate is simply a word or phrase that says something about a topic. In general, the subject of a sentence is your topic. The predicate is your comment. 

When discussing past and future events we tend to establish a time-frame before the rest of the sentence.

That gives us a "TIME" "TOPIC" "COMMENT" structure.

For example:
or "WEEK-PAST  Pro1  WASH MY CAR " 

[The "Pro1" term means to use a first-person pronoun. A first-person pronoun means "I or me." So "Pro1" is just a fancy way of saying "I" or "me." In the above example you would simply point at yourself to mean "Pro1."]

Quite often ASL signers will use the object of their sentence as the topic.  For example:

"MY CAR, WEEK-PAST I WASH"
[Note: The eyebrows are raised and the head is tilted slightly forward during the "MY CAR" portion of that sentence.]

Using the object of your sentence as the topic of the sentence is called "topicalization." In this example, "my car" becomes the subject instead of "me." The fact that "I washed it last week" becomes the comment. 

There is more than one sign for "WASH."  Washing a car or a window is different from the generic sign for "WASH" to wash-in-a-machine, or to wash a dish. The real issue here isn't so much the order of the words as it is choosing appropriate ASL sign to accurately represent the concept. 

There are a number of "correct" variations of word order in American Sign Language (Humphries & Padden, 1992).

For example you could say: "I STUDENT I" or, "I STUDENT" or even, "STUDENT I." 
Note: The concept of "I" in these sentences is done by pointing an index finger at your chest and/or touching the tip of the index finger to your chest.

You could sign:

"I FROM U-T-A-H I."
"I FROM U-T-A-H."
"FROM U-T-A-H I."

All of the above statements are "ASL."

I notice that some "ASL" teachers tend to become fanatical about encouraging their students to get as far away from English word order as possible and thus focus on the version "FROM U-T-A-H I."

It has been my experience during my various travels across the U.S. that the versions "I STUDENT" and "I FROM U-T-A-H" work great and are less confusing to the majority of people.

The version "FROM UTAH I" tends to be used only after the subject of the conversation has been introduced.  For example, suppose two people are talking about a man named Bob.  If one of them says he "thought Bob was from California" and I happen to know he is really from Utah, I would sign "FROM UTAH HE" while nodding.


Think for a moment about how English uses the phrases:
"Do you...____?"
"Did you..._____?"
"Are you..._____?"

For example, "Are you going?"
 

A "hearing" English speaker might also say to his/her friend in regard to a party which has recently been brought up as a conversation topic: "You going?"

Woah! Think about that for a moment. Have you ever asked an English teacher what is wrong with English since English sometimes uses the word "are" and doesn't the word "are" at other times? 

In ASL "You going?" -- tends to be expressed as "YOU GO?"
In ASL "Are you going?" -- tends to be expressed as, "YOU GO YOU?"
Think of the second "YOU" as being "are you?" For example: "YOU GO (are)-YOU?"
So, the second "YOU" actually means "are."  Heh.

ASL doesn't use "state of being" verbs.

The English sentence "I am a teacher" could be signed: "TEACHER ME " [while nodding your head] or even "ME TEACHER" [while nodding your head]. Both are correct, my suggestion is to choose the second version.  You might even see: PRO-1 TEACHER PRO-1 (which can also be written as I/ME TEACHER I/ME since PRO-1 means first person pronoun).  Or think of it as meaning "I TEACHER AM" with the concept of "am" just happening to be expressed via nodding while pointing at yourself.

If you are striving to pass an "ASL test" like the American Sign Language Teachers Association certification test (ASLTA), or the Sign Communication Proficiency Interview (SCPI), sure, go ahead and use a version such as "TEACHER ME" --not because it is any more ASL but because it "looks" less like English.  Test evaluators are only human. [And remember to use appropriate facial expressions!] 



Dr. Vicars: Let's discuss indexing, personal pronouns, and directionality.

First off, indexing: It is when you point your index at a person who is or isn't in the signing area. Sometimes we call that present referent or absent referent.

If the person is there, you can just point at him to mean "HE"

If the person is not there, if you have identified him by spelling his name or some other method of identification, (like a "name sign"), then you can "index" him to a point in space. Once you have set up a referent, you can refer back to that same point each time you want to talk about that person.

Need clarification on that ?

Students: [a lot of "no" answers]

[Topic:  "Personal Pronouns"]

Dr. Vicars: Now lets talk about personal pronouns.

The simplest way is to just point. If I am talking to you and want to say "YOU" then I point. To pluralize a personal pronoun, you sweep it. For example the concept of "THEY." I would point slightly off to the right and sweep it more to the right. For "YOU ALL" I would point slightly to the left and sweep to slightly to the right, (crossing my sight line).

Of course if the people are present then you can simply point to them. The more people there are the bigger the sweep. Any questions about personal pronouns?

Art: Does the sweep dip?

Dr. Vicars: It stays on a horizontal plane most of the time. If I am talking about a group that is
organized vertically then I will sign (sweep) from top to bottom in an vertical motion. But that is
rare.

Dr. Vicars: Okay now let's see how this all ties into the principle of "directionality."

Suppose I index BOB on my right and FRED on my left. Then I sign "GIVE-TO" from near my body to the place where I indexed Bob. That means "I give (gave) (something) to Bob."

If I sign GIVE TO starting the movement from the place off to the right and move it to the left it means Bob gave to Fred. If I sign starting from off to the left and bring the sign GIVE TO toward my body what would it mean?

Sandy: "Fred give to me?"

Dr. Vicars: Right.

Sandy: How do you establish tense at that point?

Dr. Vicars: Tense would be established before signing the rest of the sentence. I would say, "YESTERDAY ME-GIVE-TO B-0-B" The fingerspelling of BOB would be immediately after the ME-GIVE-TO and I would spell B-O-B slightly more to the right than normal. That way I wouldn't need to point to Bob. However there are three or four other acceptable ways to sign the above sentence. You could establish Bob then indicate that yesterday you gave it to him, etc.

Lii: Can tense be done at end of sentence, or is that confusing?

Dr. Vicars: That is confusing--I don't recommend it. I can however give you an example of "appropriately" using a time sign at the end of a sentence. Suppose I'm talking with a friend about a problem that occurred yesterday and I sign: TRY FIND-OUT WHAT-HAPPEN YESTERDAY

Dr. Vicars: That sentence talks about a situation that happened before now, but the current conversation is happening now. Some people might try to put the sign "YESTERDAY" at the beginning of that sentence, but I wouldn't--it feels awkward.

Dr. Vicars: You can directionalize many different verbs. Hand-to is the best example, but "MEET" is also useful. [To sign MEET, you hold both index fingers out in front of you about a foot apart, pointed up, palms facing each other. Then you bring them together--it looks like two people meeting. Note: The index fingers do not touch, just the lower parts of the hands.]

For example ME-MEET-YOU can be done in one motion. I don't need to sign "I" "MEET" "YOU" as three separate words. But rather I hold my right Index finger near me, palm facing you, and my left index finger near you, palm facing me. Then I bring my right to my left. One motion is all it took.

Monica: How do we know which verbs to use?

Dr. Vicars: That is the challenging part. Some just aren't directional in nature. For example: "WANT." You have to sign it normal and indicate who wants what.

Dr. Vicars: But if you are in doubt about whether or not to use indexing or directionality, go ahead and index it works every time even though it takes more effort.  (If you are taking an "in-person" class and prepping for an ASL test, it is in your best interest to become familiar with which of your vocabulary words can be directionalized or else you might lose points for not demonstrating proper ASL grammar.)

Monica: :-)

Art: Could you give examples for sweep, chop, and inward sweep diagrams used in [the Basic Sign Communication book] please.

[Note, I used to use BSC as a of the text in one of my classes. I've used many other texts as well.  They all have their good points.]

Dr. Vicars: Sure. The sweep would be to pluralize a sign like THEY.

Dr. Vicars: The chop I'm not sure what you're referring to is it ...

[Clarification was made. The diagram in question is in the Basic Sign Communication text, ISBN 0-913072-56-7, Level1, module 4, page 17]

Art: Yes, the center at the bottom

Dr. Vicars: Hold...okay...got it. You are talking about the three diagrams below the slightly larger one is that right?

Art: Yes

Dr. Vicars: Good...we're making progress... If I were handing a paper to a number of individuals, I would use several short ME-GIVE-TO-YOU motions strung together in a left to right sweeping motion.

If I were talking about passing a piece of paper to the class in general I would use a sweeping motion from left to right. If I were giving the paper to just two people, I'd use two ME-GIVE-TO-YOU motions one slightly to the left, then one slightly to the right.

Art: Thanks

[...various discussion...]

 Lii: How does one go about using "ing, s, and ed endings?" Does it need to be done?

Dr. Vicars: Good question Lii. Can I answer that next week during the grammar discussion?

Lii: You bet.

Dr. Vicars: Thanks Lii

Sandy: Similar question - how do we use punctuation? Just pause - other than emphasis with face?

Dr. Vicars: Again a good question. Okay then, let me go ahead and answer both questions now, then we'll hear comments from those of you who have them.

Dr. Vicars: When you ask about "s," you are asking about pluralization. In ASL you can pluralize any particular concept in a number of ways. So far in our lessons we have been using a sweeping motion, (for example we turn the sign "HE" into the word "THEY" by adding a sweeping movement). 

The suffix "ed" is established by using a "tense marker" like the sign PAST or is understood by context. For example if I know you are talking about a trip you went on last week, You don't need to keep signing "PAST," I would understand it was past tense. You could sign "TRUE GOOD" and I would know you meant "The trip went really well."  If I sign, "YESTERDAY ME WALK SCHOOL," the word "walk" would be understood as "walked."

About punctuation, you are right, you punctuate a sentence via your pauses and facial expressions.  One common type of punctuation is that of adding a question mark at the end of a question by drawing a question mark in the air or by holding the index finger in front of you in an "x" shape then straightening and bending it a few times. This is called a "Question Mark Wiggle." Most of the time people don't use Question Mark Wiggle at the end of a question.  Instead they rely on facial expression to indicate that a question has been asked.

Suffixes such as "ing," "ed," and others are not used in ASL in the sense that they are not separate signs that are added to a word. If I want to change "learn" into
"learning" I simply sign it twice to show it is a process. Many times the "ing" is implied. For example, "YESTERDAY I RUN" could be interpreted as "Yesterday I went for a run," or you could interpret it as, "Yesterday I was running." How you interpret it would depend on the rest of the message (context).  ...more >

Grammar 2 | 3
Inflection


Notes
What equals "correct grammar" is determined by a type of group consensus.  Consensus occurs when an opinion or decision is reached by a group as a whole. Political or governmental bodies try to "come to a consensus" on issues. For example, I was a student senator for a while.  Occasionally as a group we would "come to a consensus" on some topic.  Coming to a consensus didn't mean that everyone agreed with every aspect of the decision, but we were willing to go along with the group and support the decision.

That is how it is in ASL.  The older folks don't always agree with signs used by the younger folks. Those who teach ASL classes often don't agree with the general use of certain signs that they consider to be "signed English." But it isn't "one person's or one instructor's opinion" that determines what constitutes ASL -- it is the group.

Note:  In this discussion the phrase "speaking a language" is not limited to "voicing" but rather it also includes signing or producing a language.
 


References:
Humphries, T., & Padden, C. (1992). Learning American sign language. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.


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