"grammar" is a set of rules for using a language. These rules guide users
in the correct speaking or signing of a language.
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 how
signs are built (phonology),
what signs mean (morphology), the order in which signs should be signed (syntax),
and the way context influences signing (pragmatics).
follows several different "word orders" (not just one) 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, etc.
signed sentences tend to be expressed in subject-verb-object order (or just
subject-verb order if there is no object).
Remember, like all languages, ASL has more than one right word (sign) order.
Sometimes ASL sentences are expressed in object-subject-verb order (but not
as often as the basic SVO order). (See:
The Myth of "Store I Go.")
ASL generally does not use "state of being" verbs
(am, is, are, was, were -- sometimes referred to as "be verbs"). Nor
does ASL use separate specific signs for articles (a, an, the).
ASL tends to establish tense early on during sentences that are not present
tense. In other words, when discussing past and future events we tend to establish
a time-frame before the rest of the sentence. It is common to put a
time sign (if there is one in the sentence being used to indicate tense) at
the beginning of the sentence. For example: WEEK-PAST I WASH MY CAR sentence format.
Someone, for example, "Bob" -- may try to tell you that "Actually it should
be WEEK-PAST, MY CAR, I WASH." While Bob means well, and is not
entirely wrong -- he is likely parroting the myths he was fed by his ASL 1
instructor without having observed or studied how actual Deaf people
converse with each other on a daily basis in real life. Again I'm
cluing you in: the most common sign order in ASL is subject-verb-object.
(If you want to be anal retentive about it and not take my word and want me
to back that up, see
Sign Language: "subject-verb-object").
Yes, yes, occasionally ASL signers do use the MY CAR? WEEK-PAST I WASH
format. Remember I told you that ASL has more than one sign order. The
point here is that we don't sign every sentence using object-subject-verb
order. If you do you'll look like an unfortunate graduate of an ASL
program in which the teachers don't know the difference between
"topic-comment" structure and "topicalization." (They are not the same
briefly discuss "topic-comment" sentence structure and topicalization.
is Your 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.
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
is Topic-Comment Format?
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:
Voice, using the subject as your topic.
BOY THROW BALL.
What is the topic? Boy
is the comment saying about the boy? He threw the ball.
Voice, using the object as your topic.
BALL, BOY THROW.
What is the topic? Ball
What is the comment saying about the
ball? It was thrown by the boy.
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
The subject of the sentence:
BOY THROW BALL.
The object of the sentence: BALL,
B. The BALL
The subject of the sentence:
BALL, HIT BOY.
The object of the sentence: BOY
In each of these examples, the comment
is either THROW BALL" or HIT BOY.
Topic-Comment sentence structure can use either a Subject-Verb-Object or an
Object-Subject-Verb word order.
SVO is perfectly acceptable in ASL (regardless of what your ASL 1 teacher
may tell you).
two people are sitting somewhat near each other at a bar. For this
story we will suppose one is a man and one is a woman. 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?"
relief she replies, "No, I'm not."
then leans toward him and asks, "Are you married?"
relief he replies, "No."
start dating, get married, and have a wonderful life. End of story.
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
(The tone of his voice rising toward the end of the sentence to indicate
it is a question.)
She then leans toward him and asks,
"Are you married?"
(She stresses the word "you" in her sentence and raises her tone at the
end of the sentence.)
didn't use the words "I'm not" in his sentence but she did:
To his relief she replies, "No, I'm
To her relief he replies, "No."
probably 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 and no "funny business."
human languages possess a variety of right ways to say things. The
same is true of ASL. There are a variety of "right ways" to
structure your sentences in ASL. You
can use more or fewer signs 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 YOU?
let's talk more about the
Object, Subject, Verb (OSV) order. As a general rule, when we use that particular
signing order, we tend to use topicalization.
Topicalization is a different
concept from "TOPIC / COMMENT."
Topicalization is a sub-category of topic/comment. Topicalization
provides a way to use an object as your topic. (In English that is
referred to as using passive structure.)
Topicalization is the process of using a particular signing order (syntax) and
specific facial expressions (plus head positioning) to introduce the object of your sentence and turn it into your
topic. For example, if instead of signing "BOY THROW BALL" suppose I signed BALL, BOY THROW. I'd raise my eyebrows when I signed
the word BALL, and then I'd relax my eyebrows and sign the comment "BOY
THROW" (with a slight nod of the head).
So, really this is what is happening:
sentence: The boy threw the ball.
Topicalized: Do you recall that ball we discussed recently? The
boy threw it! (This is assuming that the boy has been identified
earlier in the conversation).
Normal sentence: BOY THROW BALL
Topicalized: BALL? BOY THROW!
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).
way to ask that same question is, "When should you use topicalization?"
Specifically, "When should you sign the object at
the beginning of your sentence while raising your eyebrows?"
are several situations when you should topicalize. A few examples applying
to ASL are:
A. When the subject is unknown: MY WALLET? GONE!
know why it is missing, if it was stolen, or who stole it.
this with active voice I would sign something to the effect of, "SOMEONE
STOLE MY WALLET" -- which requires more signing.
B. Irrelevancy: MY CAR? SOLD!
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!
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
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."
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
sentence using Topic-Comment sentence structure can either topicalized or non-topicalized:
1. YOUR MOM?
I MET YESTERDAY!
Your mom is the topic and the sentence is in Object-Verb-Subject word
2. MY CAT?
My cat is the topic and the sentence is in Object-Verb word order. The
word, MY, is an attributive adjective.
1. I MET
YOUR MOM YESTERDAY!
I am the topic and the sentence is in Subject-Verb-Object word order.
2. MY CAT
DIED! [Note there is no comma or question mark after "CAT."]
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
Which of the following sentences uses topicalization?
Subject-Verb-Object: BOY THROW BALL.
Subject-Verb: BOY RUN.
Subject-Noun: HE HOME.
Subject-Adjective: HE TALL .
Subject-Verb: MONEY? she-GIVE-me.
The right answer is: MONEY?
keep in mind that you don't have to use topicalization.
Topicalization is not the norm
in extended Deaf conversations and is reserved for specific purposes such
as 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?
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
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
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.
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
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
a car or a window is different from the generic sign for "WASH"
to wash-in-a-machine, or to
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,
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
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:
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
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
Dr. Vicars: Okay now let's see how this all ties into the principle of
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
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
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
probably the best example, but
"MEET" is also common. [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.)
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?
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.
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
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
"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
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
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.
Humphries, T., & Padden, C. (1992). Learning American sign
language. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.